Nanang "The Brave" was born in the seaside port of Semarang, south of the Indonesian island chain that formed the Greater Sunda Islands.
For generations, his family worshipped the Elemental God Batara Guru, a deity-Spirit who aeons ago ordered the creation of their island home by taking one of the five peaks of Mahameru in Jambudvipa and anchoring it to the floating landmass that was Java. On his island, Nanang and his ilk believed that the fire-belching ring of fire wasn't an island at all, but a Leviathan-deity, a slumbering Naga Turtle with the Meru on its back, sleeping in the bean-green sea.
For Nanang and his people, the Sea of Java was the womb of their civilisation.
As a child, he collected cockerels and shellfish from its shores.
As an adolescent, he dived for abalone and lobsters.
And when he Awakened at fifteen, Nanang joined the other boys of similar age from the village and boarded the rusty vessels sailing from Semarang to the Frontier city of Jakarta. Standing half-naked on the shoreline, they were hand-picked by the exalted Captains of the Naga fleet in a grand auction of the local talent.
As a tier three Water Transmuter, Nanang fetched 80 HDMs, a veritable fortune for his impoverished, starving village. After that, once the Headhunter took his cut, 68 HDMs were exchanged for food and sundry, then sent back to Nanang's settlement. That night, the village celebrated while its prodigy son, Nanang, took his place on the deck of the Akimvrishka, one of the Naga fleet's many converted factory-carriers.
This year, Nanang was twenty-two. For seven years, he had worked ceaselessly on the Akimvrishka, earning the rank of Third Mate thanks to the short-lived career of his seniors. For the Naga fleet, the sea was harsh and generous in equal measure; a Deva and an Asura in one. Those who lived off her many bosomed teets had to suffer weather, accident, Mermen and zealous disputes with their Captains on a near-daily basis.
Nanang's dearest wish, if there was one, was to finish his ten-year tour and return to Semarang.
There, he could rejoin the village as one of the lucky ones, find himself a woman, father children, and pay respects to his sire, assuming the Mage was alive, then crew a small fishing vessel as its Master.
Nanang had deemed his dream a humble one, though now it seemed his last incarnation might have contaminated his present luck. For a fleet of their size, it wasn't that unusual to be accosted by the Coast Guard who could be bought with HDMs or Creature Cores. What was unusual was a random encounter with a lone Mage out in the Black Zones, one that demanded unconditional surrender. Stranger still, when the sorceress came close enough for Nanang to see, he had felt an unspeakable sense of recognition— feeling as though he had seen her supple silhouette elsewhere.
"Keep firing!" Captain Raharjo's spittle landed on Nanang's shoulder. "Take the harlot down! No witnesses!"
Nanang's chest flooded with fatigue as he conjured yet another Magic Missile. The Mandala-tuned mana enriched by the ship's defences overwhelmed his conduits, bloating his body to bursting. Around him, Nanang could see his lesser shipmates bleeding from their noses and their ears; a few had burst the capillaries in their irises, turning them into red-eyed Asuras.
As for their foe, Nanang did not believe they could slay nor capture the sorceress.
Over the last seven years, he had slain Mermen Scouts, jousted with Manta Riders and exchanged blows with Crab-clawed Heavy Infantry. On the islands the fleet passed, he had subdued flesh-eating natives, drowned crazed snake-women with scale-covered breasts that shorne like jewels and splintered walking trees that tore men apart and ate their fatty intestines. Each of the battles was hard-won, for it was only thanks to the combined force of the ship's Resonator and its make-shift Wands that they could triumph over the Black Zone.
But Nanang had never witnessed such an encounter as a Bulai who was pretty as a picture, single-handedly confronting a Naga fleet while armoured in a flimsy shirt and skirt.
Not only that, she had declared herself to be a Magus from London, and that the fleet should prepare to be boarded by her lonesome self.
Naturally, their Captain refused to suffer the insult.
They had too much to gain and too little to lose.
As for whether Raharjo made the right decision, Nanang couldn't say.
For men who lived on the crests' edge, violent solutions were a jaw-clenching reflex. Raharjo had no idea if the girl was alone, or if there was a fleet or a Flight cloaked with Mass Invisibility in her mana wake. He only cared that if their presence got back to Singapore via officious channels, the fortress city's Strike Cruisers would pursue them from Bangka Belitung to Jakarta.
"How is her Shield still unshattered?" His Captain watched the girl ascend without effort, trailed by no less than a dozen Magic Missiles pinging off her spherical mana wall. Somehow, she had even shrugged off his fourth-tier Elemental Orbs. "Bangke! What is she, a Sea Elf?"
Nanang had no answers for his Captain. He wasn't educated like those Singaporeans across the strait, safe in their fortress, he hadn't gone to secondary school or even learned to read and write beyond what was necessary for survival.
"She's out of range," Nanang observed.
"I can see that," his Captain growled. "Bangsat! She's up too high! Now we'll have to hunt her down! Sinta! Dian! Come with me!"
"Aye, Captain!" The ship's First and Second Mate, both women and both Transmuters-Abjurers, broke from the milling thong of NoMs fiddling with sizzling-hot wands overheated from the meta-magic. A few seconds later, they completed their Flight and defence buffs and hovered through the air.
"Bridge, where is she now?"
"We're tracking her directly above us, about two hundred and twenty metres, Captain."
"Don't lose her. Keep her signature locked-on."
A pulsing green Message flare affirmed Raharjo's command.
For Nanang, his superiors' flying forms, dark against the burning brightness of the water, made his heart sore. When would he have an opportunity to learn spells like Flight? Nanang lamented. His Affinity for Transmutation, according to the scribes at the auction office, was already at the right tier. For a rube like him, however, it would cost over two hundred HDMs to hire a tutor willing to teach him while under the auspice of a Cognisance Chamber. If Nanang was a woman, and a pretty one at that, his Captain might have taken an interest— but Nanang was a man and therefore both a useful tool and a potential competitor. Though his increase in sorcerous potential could help, there was little motivation for his Captain to elevate Nanang, at least not with Sinta and Dian clinging onto the Raharjo's trouser legs.
DING! DING! DING!
A Mass Message spell from the bridge's Divination room blossomed beside Nanang's ears.
"Unexpected Conjuration detected, Captain! Look out for—"
Something akin to a shadow briefly flickered at the edge of Nanang's vision. A wave of nausea washed over him; then like a mirage revealing a Dragon Turtle hidden in the mist, the monster fell upon them before anyone could react.
A twin pair of white hands, feminine and slender like that of the divine Avalokiteśvara, reached out across the aether toward Sinta and Dian and caught them, one by the torso and the other by the hip. The strangely beautiful spectacle felt so surreal that Nanang's lips naturally affected a grin, recalling how he had once seen pretty girls at the market clutching colourful dolls carved from leftover lumber.
The slender fingers squeezed.
His shipmate's Shields shattered in intermittent bursts of discordant mana.
"ACID Barrier!" His Captain forwent saving the two screaming Transmuters, for he could see their innards overflowing from between the digits of the six-fingered hands; if anything— death would be a mercy.
The spells struck, there were a hiss, an SHAA and a cry of pain, then the fog in Nanang's head dispersed.
"Concentrate all FIRE!" he howled at the NoM sailors with their tethered wands. "BANISH THE RAKSHASA!"
The lower-tier Mages and the NoMs raised their weapons once more. When finally his Captain's acid slid from the creature, Nanang saw the monstrous bird in its entirety. The fiend wasn't overly large, as it had appeared earlier in his mind, but still as big as a Gull-winged Peng, the mortal scions of the Leviathan-bird of Kunlun.
What terrified his NoM shipmates and Nanang was that the bird had no face, for it was all mouth from the neck up, and now it was doing its best to devour their Captain even as he transmuted spell and shield to escape the tentacles latching onto his acid-tinged barrier.
SPAK! SPAK! SPAK!
The Wand-spells struck.
A hive of piercing missiles ricochetted from the creature's jet-black, obsidian feathers, bending nary a plume.
"B-Blink!" In a blind panic, Captain Raharjo jaunted through the aether, leaving behind a pile of rags and un-attuned clothing, reappearing near-naked some distance away on the deck. By now, the man's eyes were two bloodshot orbs of hapless desperation. "Corrosive Missiles!"
"Lesser Shape Metal!" Nanang drew on everything he had to transmute the shattered decking, hoping to snare the creature so that his Captain could reduce it into a pile of bubbling black bile.
"SHAA!" When its fingers tore through his sheet metal like paper, Nanang felt complete despair. What manner of creature was this? He demanded to know. From what demi-plane of the Gods had it descended and how could they defeat that which could not be harmed?
Before Nanang could catch up with his runaway imagination, the well-lit sky grew unnaturally, infinitely brighter.
A solid rod of living lightning, as thick as the stoutest pillar in the Obsidian Temple of Shiva in Bali, struck the water before expanding into ten thousand branches of arcing electricity, blossoming like a giant Banyan, turning the blue sea white.
Up in the bridge's castle housing, the magic-dampening Mandala must have taken damage, for Nanang could hear the distinct sound of the ship's inner conduits shriek, after which the thrumming mana beneath his feet churned and choked.
"SURRENDER YOUR ARMS!" Came the command from the heavens, the very same that had ordered them earlier. It was the girl whose likeness brushed against vague memories he could not recollect. For now, as the bird-thing smeared the deck with gore, Raharjo's Third Mate had only one thought— if this winged Rakshasa served the sorceress, then had they offended an incarnation of Shiva?
"SURRENDER NOW OR—"
"Nanang! PUSH IT INTO THE WATER!" Raharjo half-melted a fleeing NoM with one sweep of his hand. "Do it now!"
Nanang compelled his mind to concentrate, banishing the stalking bird from view. Between the bird and himself, there were some dozen NoMs who would act as his proxies before he came face to face with that bottomless gullet. His Captain was right; if he could move the armoured bird into the sea where its hands and wings were useless, maybe it would drown.
"ARIEL!" Came a shattering howl of righteous anger.
"EE!" The air above the tanker shimmered, revealing a quasi-draconic visage ten-times the resplendence of the idols in Candi Borobudur's sacred halls.
A KIRIN! By Batara Kala! Nanang's mind grew suddenly blank as ancient tales of Devas and Asuras warring over the fate of man unfurled in his head like a length of illustrated Sutra. A Kirin? Rather than an Asura, was the sorceress an emissary of the Deva?
There was a moment's pause, the calm before the storm. Nanang had only a moment to ponder if the girl was an Asura or Deva, then—
— their tribulation arrived.
Nanang supposed the sorceress' wrath was a foregone conclusion, a punishment for Nanang and his ilk who had not immediately prostrated to kiss her flawlessly pale feet.
The lightning landed this time on the castle, naturally guided by the laws laid down by the Gods to the highest point of the factory-carrier. The Shielding Mandala visibly glowered for a few seconds as the materials used to inscribe the Ward turned to motes of super-heated liquid. A split-second later, the bridge erupted in a blooming flower of emerald electricity.
All around Nanang, chaos reigned. From the castle, bits of metal, some as large as crab-folk Mermen, rained down around them.
"SHAAA!" There was a brief scream. Nanang turned, caught in a dream of slow-time, discovering to his surprise not a large bird with a mouth for a face, but a six-headed Naga where the bird had been. Each faceless head had presently arrested a resistive Mage, their bewildered Captain included.
The scene all but erased the last shred of doubt in Nanang's mind. To command the Naga and a six-headed beast at that, the girl must be a High Asura, one of the ten-thousand hands of she who was the Destroyer of Worlds. Caught in the monster's mouths, his Captain had attempted another Blink, but the unpracticed Mage proved too stricken with horror to maintain his concentration. With an effortless tug from two heads, Captain Raharjo split at the seams, his entrails stringing between two mouths fighting for the upper portion of Raharjo's carcass.
Nanang knelt with the others laying down their arms. "Great Varunas, we give ourselves willingly, please return this offending servant to the Great Wheel."
A burgeoning surge of violent frustration filled Gwen's chest to the verge of bursting, releasing only when the supercharged mana left her conduits, leaving her blissfully empty.
Below the halo of heat left by the racing electricity, Ariel's quasi-divine visage grew envigorated until it was larger than even Caliban in his Big-bird form. Once fed on Almudj's Essence, its horns grew incandescent, so bright that a second sun appeared to envelop the Kirin— then both bolts discharged at once.
Of the Evocation in her present repertoire, Gwen chose Chain Lightning for its capacity to carry the necessary voltage of mana, as well as its inclination to leap between targets. Taking a leaf from the lessons taught by Patel, she had taken the time to modify the spell for range and violence, vastly inflating the spectacle of her sorcery in exchange for lethal potential.
Her Barbanginy struck, drawn to the lightning rod Divination bridge.
The initial impact shattered every shielded window, first blowing the warded panes inward before the scorched interior expelled its occupants outwards. Concurrently, the fleeing currents of blue-green electricity proved too much for the old carrier, peeling the rusty panes from their scaffolding, melting the heated rivet bolts.
From the bridge, the Chain Lightning then leapt to the forecastle, tearing up the double hull in a fantastic explosion.
Then from the carrier, the much-diminished discharge travelled to the closest trawler, one pulling blocks of pilfered wood into the factory ramp, lighting the cabin like an overblown bulb before striking an adjacent tug, igniting the crystal stows so spectacularly the resulting explosion kissed the gunwale of the factory-carrier.
Gwen took a deep breath then delivered her final ultimatum.
"SURRENDER OR PERISH!" Her vociferated warning rolled like low thunder across an oily sky polluted by streaked columns of black smoke.
"Shaa!" In her mind, Caliban reported that the stunned survivors had fallen to their knees to beg for mercy. As for those that continued to attack, they now rested in its gullet.
Around the carrier, she could see that the ships which had escaped her Chain Lightning now attempted to flee. A quick assessment flashed across her mind. Catching all the vessels would require a supreme effort of using Dimension Door together with Lighting Bolts, a bothersome but not impossible task.
BUT— such pyroclastic performances would inevitably consume the lives of the NoMs too weak to defend themselves against her meagrest spell.
I should show mercy toward these helpless NoMs, the white-winged portion of her conscience remained resolute.
Ah, but is letting the ships flee mercy at all? The fork-tail voice of rationality mocked her conscience. Out there was the Javanese Sea: a hot zone of men-eating Mermen; without a Shielding ship, how far could your mercy float before becoming Mer-feed?
She didn't like the answer, and so chose not to dwell. Instead, she focused on the group grovelling on the carrier's broad-brimmed deck.
One group was on their knees, chanting in front of Naga Caliban, while the other half of the crew confusedly hollered at Ariel to save them from Caliban.
Gwen hovered mid-air, mindful of the Wands still lying within arm's reach.
"Allie, Gunther, I've subdued the ship," she sent out a Message when no attack came. "The fishing fleet fled."
Thirty-seconds later, Alesia arrived as a retina-searing meteor.
Gunther caught up a few seconds later with a non-too-impressed disposition that made her chest tighten.
"… An interesting outcome, one I assume you planned for," Gunther said. "I can see most of them are unharmed."
"I killed the belligerents."
"They're all belligerents."
"Being poor and desperate isn't a crime, Gunther."
"Attempted murder of a Magus of the Mageocracy executing his or her official duty is a capital offence." Gunther's eyes were cold as steel as they swept over her tightly wound body. He then pointed to the abandoned trawler nets and the floating logs. "As is the theft of the state's resources and the agitation of Demi-humans within the state's area of control."
"That may be, but we are not Singapore Tower's goons," she retorted. "I am not dirtying my hands to save their guards the effort of coming out here themselves."
"Is that what a future Tower Master should say?" Gunther cocked his head. "Are laws so malleable?"
"No more malleable than yours," Gwen snapped back at her brother-in-craft. "Else you'd be flaming any officers who dared to steal from the Tower's coffers, even if it's in the execution of their duty."
"Gwennie…" Her sister-in-craft looked torn between wanting to clap because Gwen had nailed Gunther with his hypocrisy and wanting to scold Gwen for not sinking every ship she could.
Gunther met her defiant amber-green eyes.
"Then I shall abstain from commenting on your methods," the man said, his tone unchanging. "I do not fault you for taking a stand, Sister. Just know that every choice has a cost."
"Which brings us to this—" Gunther's next words had her by the throat. "What do you intend to do with these poachers?"
Below the trio, men and women squirmed like exposed grubs, their sickly skin slick with oozy perspiration, their caramel complexions blanched with fear. From the bridge, the stench of scorched flesh drifted downwards, viscid and oily; around the deck, a stink of oxidising iron accompanied the mangled victims of the fallen debris. When the sea breeze picked up, the wafting odour of unwashed bodies, soiled garments, sweat and spoiled fish only added to the picture of misery.
In Gwen's mind, these men were floating on a veritable Raft of the Medusa. As for Gunther's question, she knew what she did NOT want to do. But she had no idea what to do.
"Sail them back to Singapore?" Try as she might, she couldn't think of anything else. "The city is only a hundred kilometres out."
"Assuming they aren't scuttled the moment they appear within Shielding range, that's a possibility," Gunther said. "Do you happen to have any diplomatic connections in Singapore?"
"… I know a Tower Master from a major power next door, whose city is Singapore's chief supplier of grain and beef." Gwen looked to her brother-in-craft. "Maybe he could help."
"I can guarantee that you can land the ship, but no one here will escape punishment," Gunther said. "Look at them, do you think they'll survive the lashes?"
Gwen's eyes swept across the crowd, many of whom stared back at her in horror. A few of the men must have understood English, for Gwen could see in their faces that a few of their prisoners understood their impending fate.
"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it." Gwen sighed. "Tell you what, though. Get me in contact with someone who's someone, and I'll put on the old charm—"
Her consideration was interrupted by an unexpected disruption. One of the servitor Mages, an Evoker tethered to a Magic Missile Wand, grew suddenly wild with speculation.
"She lies!" The man's eyes hid nothing of his feelings. "They won't spare us! She's Priestess to the Rakshasa! She's the Asura they worship! We're not going to Singapore! We're food! We're FISH FOOD!"
Before Gwen could respond, a low-tier Transmuter beside the Evoker tackled the man to the floor and covered his mouth with his hands.
Bewildered, Gwen looked to Alesia and Gunther, who appeared equally perplexed, then turned to the struggling duo. The siblings all sported upper-tier Translation Stones, so the Pig Latin used by these men wasn't alien to them.
"Mistress, Bambang isn't well." A caramel-skinned Water Mage prevented Gwen from directly addressing the sobbing dissident. "He did not know your grace ruled these waters."
"I rule what now?" Gwen questioned the man, her brows furrowing. "What's your name?"
"Nanang, O worshipfulness. I am the ship's Third Mate."
"Where are your First and the Second?"
Nanang gestured behind her.
"Shaa?" First Mate Caliban cooed coyly.
Gwen nodded. "I see. What's your man talking about?"
"Bambang has gone mad, Mistress," the man explained meekly, sweat oozing from every pore. Though he already prostrated, he somehow grovelled lower. "I humbly beg for your mercy."
"You're a fool, Nanang! There's no mistaking it! She's the Priestess of the Rakshasi of the sea!" Bambang appeared to shrink as she approached. "We should have never have harvested that shoal of Mermaids! She's here for them, just like they said! The Pale Priestess will come, they said! The Pale Priestess avenges!"
"Bambang, do not irritate the Mistress!" The sailor known as Nanang swiftly kicked the man in the face, then grovelled once more. "He speaks of dreams, your worshipfulness!"
"What Mermaids?" Gwen demanded, her curiosity peaking. Without effort, her Desolation Aura swept across the deck, cowering any who dared to stare. "Show me, or I'll show you the anger of an Asura."
The pair grew paler as the Negative Energy lapped at their Astral Bodies, wearing away their will. After a moment more, their pupils grew dark and fatalistic.
"In— in the hold."
"Take me down." Gwen signalled Caliban.
A rippling wave of vertigo accompanied the sound of shifting flesh and snapping bone as Caliban assumed a multi-legged form suitable for low passages and narrow gangways. In a ring around Gwen, her prisoners kissed their heads against the rusty deck in the manner of men wishing they could meld with the metal.
"I'll be back," Gwen said to her siblings, who appeared intrigued by the whole ordeal. "Ariel. Overwatch."
Alesia promised, ruffling the Kirin's fur. "Fair warning. If they have a go at me, they burn."
Gunther delivered an assuring nod.
Led by the shaking, muttering Evoker and accompanied by the ship's Third Mate, Gwen descended into the dark.
The interior of the ship stank as much as the exterior, only with an acridness thrice as concentrated. The interior passages, Gwen could see, were far from OSHA compliant, as there were clothing, shoes, toiletry and personal effects hung all over, acting as evidence of the inhabitants' thread-bare humanity.
The path down to the factory floor took a dozen twists and turns, confusing Gwen so much that she felt tempted to produce her Omni-Orb.
"In here, O worshipfulness." The men grovelled.
The chamber in which she and the others arrived was an interior processing unit for tinned seafood. When the iron door swung open, the result of billions of bacteria busily decomposing portions of fish struck Gwen like a mallet, overpowering even her eyesight.
"SHAA! SHAA! SHAA!" Caliban began to sing, celebrating the miasma of decay that made the dim-lit factory line so morbid to behold. As with any place where life had been extinguished on an industrial scale, there was no lack of Negative Energy.
Bathed in stench and desiring to burn her present attire, she took a moment to gather her wits.
Inside, Nanang and Bambang dragged forward a crate on casters the size of a skip bin filled with what looked like unprocessed fish.
In it, Gwen recognised what could only be sawed-off components of Mermen and Mermaids, now mingled in bloody matrimony. Despite being a stable food source, a Mer-person's upper body was usually processed into fish paste because its humanoid likeness was too much for consumers. Hypocritically, their tail was often left on display over sheets of ice, perfectly preserved through Gentle Repose and wildly popular with fine diners.
With some effort, the Mages pulled several torsos from the pile.
"Light." Gwen activated a cantrip. When her spell shed elucidation on what the men had first attempted to hide, her concentration faltered, causing the globe to flicker.
"August Asura." Bambang lowered his head. "We did not mean to harm your slaves. It was all under Raharjo's orders."
Gwen swallowed hard, doing her best to ignore the bile brushing her tonsils. The dismembered bodies in front of her displayed nautical tattoos commonly found on Mermen tribesmen and women. Culturally, the practice paralleled the Kiwi's Ta Moko, though to Gwen's knowledge, rather than ancestry, the Mermen's florid inscriptions served to identify religion, fealty and accomplishments.
Her shock, therefore, was for the likeness staring back at her.
It was her face.
A stranger might not recognise Gwen at first from the blue-black lines, but she could— for the particularity of the shape, the silhouette, the lines around her eyes and her chin and the way her hair framed her shoulders were all familiar.
It was the lumen-image of her sold to the Hormel Food Company for use on IIUC promotional cans.
A second body had the same visage roughly imprinted on its chest, not unlike the countenance of Ernesto "Che" Guevara on the t-shirts of liberal college girls.
Another female had her eyes tattooed near the collarbones.
Gwen's skin grew gradually clammy. A thousand questions assailed her mind, the foremost being, "Why her face was being used as Ta Moko?" Hadn't these Mermen ever heard about registered trademarks?
Yet another likeness of her, a half-body version from throat to navel, had been chopped in half by a meat saw.
"What the fuck is this?" She made her confusion known, though no answer came from her trembling prisoners. With some effort, a fifth body was pulled from the bin, exposing its back where a mass of dark markings resembling tentacles with eyes writhed.
A sudden and terrible suspicion came to her, numbing Gwen from her sweaty crown to her curling toes.
"You two, enough." Gwen halted the two Indonesian Mages from dragging more bodies from the bin. Gwen pinched her brows, banished the confusion from her mind, then tried to think her way through this discovery.
Unfortunately, she wasn't the self-philosophising Prince Hamlet. Her God-given capability and reason did not prevail. In her confined experience, no notion, rationale, justification, nor understanding could explain why her face adorned the bodies of the Mermen.
Maybe, she ventured a guess. Maybe the Mermen in the region REALLY liked SPAM and thought she was the originator of miracle mystery meat? It wasn't unreasonable to believe that the fishy masses might have confused branding with evangelising, coming to see her as a SPAM-bearing messiah.
Should she ask Ruì what their contract with Homel entailed? Gwen queried herself, shivering at the crude ink depicting her smiling face. Even if Ruì was trying to maximise their quarterly earnings, selling her image to a Mermen church seemed excessive.
"Gunther? Allie?" her voice echoed in the foul space of the iron-walled hull. Unfortunately, her companions were out of Divination line of sight.
She should have sunk the ship.