"Gogo!" the tunnel echoed with the sound of Gwen's happy hollers. "Welcome to the Murk!"
"Calamity…" the Thunder Wyvern checked his surroundings by sniffing the air. "What is this place? It stinks."
The Dwarves shifted uncomfortably.
"Hey, that's not nice," Gwen berated her brute. "Sorry, Rory. No offence, that's just Gogo being his usually tactful self."
"None-taken," Bumrorlim Vildrenbrandt, cousin to Hanmoul, voiced from the vox-caster of her Swiftstrider, a Golem suit built for speed by mimicking the distended limbs of the Murk Centipede, a ten-legged carnivorous insect known for its agility. As Gwen's Planar Ally unfurled, the Iron Guard moved her spindly legs backwards with a hiss, giving the Wyvern the space he needed.
"Gogo, I think a compact form might perform better in a place like this." Gwen gestured to the ever-narrowing walls in the distance. "Something good for bruising, what do you reckon?"
Golos made the cavern positively tiny at his full height, an act that awed both Human and Dwarves. There was no doubt that the Thunder Wyvern was majestic, even if the True Draconic-scion's mental capacity proved leagues behind his physical prowess.
Ther Wyvern grunted.
There was a flash, then in a scene akin to Magic Girl Transformations Gwen had once seen on TV, Golos grew vivified with retina-searing lightning, lacking all but a personalised BGM. When finally the disco died down, she was staring at a Dragon-headed Whetu twice the Maori's size.
Her Wyvern flexed its enormous claws, "Hmm…" Then swished its flail of a tail. "This will do nicely."
"Very handsome." Gwen admired the tapered snout and the white-blue scales set about Golos' rugged jaws, offset by a burst of brilliant feathers extending from his skull crest. To describe the creature as a juggernaut would be an apt observation, especially considering that Golos' Draconic strength amplified his muscular power by tens of magnitudes. "Care for a weapon?"
"What do you have?"
"A Smasher Axe." Hanmoul's cousin, "Rori" Vildrenbrandt, released the heavy metal Gwen had requested prior.
The Dwarf-forged implement landed with a thud; wicked and deadly, its chainsaw mechanism was tooled for hewing reinforced bedrock. With one hand, Golos hefted the weapon and checked its balance.
"I would have preferred a sword." The Wyvern turned the axe over and over. "This has no finesse."
"You can do swordplay?" Gwen was taken aback by the Wyvern's untapped depth. "I imagined you would be a part of the bludgeoning club."
"Ryxi taught us Sword Arts when we're younger." The hulking mass of scale and muscle shrugged. "Worry not, Calamity, this primitive implement will do. What are we killing?"
Rori awkwardly laughed.
"Aberrants," Gwen said conspiratorially. "Murk-Beast Waves, essentially."
"Taste any good?"
Once the Dwarf recovered from Golos' insult of her mastercrafted Smasher Axe, she gave her two HDMs. "Nay, Lord Drake, their foul flesh taste like poison."
"Sounds spicy." the Wyvern slung the giant axe over his shoulder. He looked over the group, then nodded at Gracie, who quickly looked away. "Just us?"
"Of course not." Gwen took note. "Alright, everyone, are we ready?"
"Ladies first," Richard said.
"Yep." Petra produced a glimmering, crystalline Spellcube.
"I am ready to take notes." Gracie grinned sheepishly.
"I am ready." Jean-Paul's voice was a whisper in the presence of Gracie, Gwen and Petra.
"Alright, then let's unleash the doggos— Morden's Hound Pack!"
The silvery light of Conjuration momentarily flooded the tunnel as the four Conjurers each tapped into their Elemental Gates to manifest their hounds.
From Gwen came eight Lightning Hounds and then eight Void Hounds in their strange quasi-Draconic forms.
From Richard came eight Water Hounds in their original Highland likeness.
Petra's mimicry produced six crystalline Mineral Hounds in minimalist nephrite, smooth and polished and long-legged in the form of the Borzoi, a breed prized by the Moscow Tower.
And finally from Jean-Paul came seven slithering somethings, pale and pallid and barely hound-like, with triple-jointed legs and faceless heads ending in lamprey lips. If the party had not known that Jean-Paul was trying to spell shape dogs, they would have thought these creatures cousins of Umzokwe.
To finish, Gwen conjured forth Astro and Buck to command the packs.
"EE!" Ariel was positively delighted by the army the group had conjured.
"Shaa! Shaa!" Not to be dismissed, Caliban made its spidery presence known.
Umzokwe drooled with anticipation.
Lea clapped happily, marvelling at their impromptu army.
As a canine battalion, the conjured dogs engulfed the cavern as they mustered into place, shimmering with unique mana signatures. The largest was Gwen's Essence-fed Void Hounds, while the smallest was Petra's jade dogs.
"Astro, you're on defence. Buck, you and your packs are on harm duty!" Gwen drifted into the air, hailing her companions to follow. Though she had not informed the Guildmaster, her confidence in discovering Hanmoul and Hilda lay with a secret weapon no earth-dwelling Dwarf could imagine— a gift of Divination from a Thunder Dragon in the form of a floating orb. "Alrighty, fellers— MOVE OUT!"
Different to overland transit, travelling through the Dwarf's tunnels was a slow and ponderous affair. Despite the efforts made by Fabricator Engines to create straight and uniform passageways, unpredictable eddies of slush and blockages of super-dense Elemental Earth, combined with natural hollows formed by underground waterways inevitably brought three-dimensional complications. In the olden days, teams of Deepdowners would will-away the Elemental oddities, though not nearly enough of the deep-dwelling scholars now existed in the Murk to make such operations worth their time.
Comparatively, having absolved themselves of the need for mechanised infantry, Gwen's party travelled as though Hasted, heralding their arrival with a wave of yelping, yapping and howling dogs bouncing off the walls. At the forefront were her Void Hounds, enormous figures of strange sleekness with unnatural agility, trigging fungi bursts and bolting through Murk Spider dens without wincing— though that may be because her creatures possessed no faces. Behind them, streams of Water Hounds made the passage slick with their secretions as they bounded behind their dark-skinned cousins, purifying the air of spores with mist as they passed.
Around the party itself skulked Jean-Paul's Leech Hounds, each keeping a close sniffer on their inexperienced Void sorceress companion. The Jade Hounds took up rear patrol, being the slowest but stockiest of the bunch, while here and there Gwen's Lightning Hounds provided much-needed light as they dashed about, freely patrolling the perimetry as living electric lamps.
For a sorceress who lorded over the Isle of Dogs, it was all very fitting.
"Contact!" Gwen called out while keeping a close eye on her Omni-orb. The party was making good progress, seeing as they could ignore most of the lesser dangers of the Murk with their harrying dogs, especially when lead by a party of flying Mages.
"Don't forget, the Aberrants' blood can be corrosive and toxic!" Rori brought her Spellsword to bear. "Hurdal, Hurdan, take my flank!"
"Not a problem." The sorceress grinned. "Buck, consume the rest, but bring a survivor, I want to see what we're dealing with."
Out of sight and around a corner that distended upward and to the right, there came the sound of howls and yips followed by an insane choir of hysterical screaming.
When their party eventually arrived, Gwen halted the group. "Well done, Bucko, Cali, let us see what we're dealing with."
There was something pallid and still very much alive squirming on the potholed floor of the transit tunnel. A dozen of the dogs were fanned out as forward-guards, while two of the Void Hounds, Buck included, wagged their tails atop their trophy.
"By the Sju Dorfran…" their guide bulked. "What in the Murk did you do, Overlander?"
"Disarmed it." Gwen drifted closer. "What would you call this?"
She had left the empathic commanding of the dogs to Caliban; so far, her wiggly Void Fiend had not disappointed. In front of them, the creature was missing all of its limbs— which from the looks of its gnawed stumps, once numbered between six and ten. As for its complexion, the skin was sickly white, though not in the sense of Petra's warm nephrite, but a befouled, deathly paleness that hinted at a deficiency of Vitamin-D.
"Tis an Aberrant Scout— a Murk Crawler," Rori said. "They're incredibly fast, how did yer dogs catch it?"
"They have their ways." Gwen could only attribute the hunt's success to the pack tactics innate to Morden's Hounds. "Interesting, I've never seen Murk creatures up close. No eyes, all mouth and those enormous nostrils, I wonder how it sees. You said it senses us through tremors? Does it think or feel at all?"
Perhaps scenting their warm bodies so close, the ribald beast began to gnash its teeth. What disturbed Gwen the most, other than the thing's lilac-pink tongue, was the incisors at the front of its jaw, followed by several canines and even a hint of molars.
"A scavenger Omnivore?" Richard suggested once he reached their side.
"They eat anything from minerals to kin-flesh." Gracie's voice came from behind them. "Aberrants are cannibals as well as omnivores."
"Waste not— want not." Petra shrugged. "Food is scarce here. As for whether it's sentient, give me a second."
The Mind Mage intensely concentrated. When her cousin opened her brilliant blue eyes once more, she furrowed her brows. "Hard to say, there is intelligence, or at least there used to be— but its all muddled. Whatever this thing is now. It is as mindless as they come."
Gwen looked at the terraformed transit tunnel around them. "If this is a scout, then where are the rest?"
"Likely in a pocket where the Planar rifts are thin," Rori advised from above. "They don't like to venture far from their nest."
"Buck," Gwen commanded her creature. "Extract the Core."
The dog dug in, engendering a final round of hapless howling from the writhing Aberrant Crawler. When Buck's eyeless head once again emerged, it vomited forth a small, misshapen sphere the size of a tennis ball.
One of Richard's dogs gave the thing a once over, then brought it over to Gwen.
"Please don't Gwen-handle it." Richard enveloped the thing in a film of floating water. "It's composition is very muddy. I sense Negative Energy as well."
"What do you think?" Gwen turned to Petra and Gracie, their resident scholars.
"Ooze," Petra said after a moment of magical inspection. "And something else."
"And 'Aberrant' energy from the Astral." Gracie's inspection was aided by instruments built into her combat suit. "These beasts are not naturally occurring if I had to guess. The Core looks like it was forcibly warped with Transmutation, then inter-bred. If I had to guess, I would say its a form of chimaera?"
"Old and malevolent creatures are said to live between the Planes in their darker recesses," Bumrorlim spoke from the vox box. "We believe they escaped into the Murk when the Dark One awoke and twisted the Ley-lines."
"You mean the Black Dragon?" Richard said.
"Aye." The Dwarf lowered her voice. "The Old Drake in the Dark..."
"Vynssarion," Gwen said suddenly.
The party turned to regard the sorceress.
"Everyone keeps talking about the Dark Drake, the Black Dragon and all that— it has a name, and it's Vynssarion, Ex-Guardian of the Black Sea, presumably looking after a tree."
"… I don't think I am supposed to know that." Bumrorlim groaned audibly over the external speakers. Her guards likewise shifted uncomfortably. "That sounds like Deepdowner knowledge."
"Vynssarion, eh?" Richard nodded. "Sounds mean."
"In Dragon Tongue," Gracie added after a moment of thought. "It means Herald of the Abyss."
"That's not very nice." Jean-Paul sucked in a breath of cold air.
"Somewhat self-evident, given what the Beast Tide brought," Petra related with a sigh.
"Calamity, you should speak that name with quiet reverence, or not at all." Golos provided a rare nugget of wisdom. "My father can hear those who whisper his name when he dreams of the Unformed Land. Maybe the Supreme of the Western Blacks is listening even now? If you don't believe me, say it out loud three times before you sleep."
"Oh, dear." Gracie gulped, making the sign of the Nazarene.
"Anyway…" Gwen waved away the strange atmosphere that had just now engendered, pointing down the upward turning tunnel, she chose to change topics. "Shall we?"
The thing with finding anything in the Murk was that one tunnel split into two, then two into five, and then those passageways kept on diversifying ad infinitum. Where the Dwarves had constructed the tunnels, they did their best to leave landmarks, labels and street signs, though such efforts were often sabotaged by cunning predators lurking in the dark.
However, when Gwen's party arrived, there was no ambiguity about the tunnel they should take.
"This way," the sorceress watched her Omni-orb hover toward the far right of an intersection offering five distinct routes. On Rori's map, two led to mana lodes with HDM mines and the other three lead onward into the lower Murk. Conversely, the Dwarf also reminded their guests that no civilised being had ventured this far from the Citadel for decades save for Hanmoul and Hilda's expedition.
"There, I found a Glyph Rune." Rori scraped at the wall with her Strider's mechanised limbs until the mud fell away. "Someone's covered it. Clever buggers. Aye, tis Revered Hildenbrandt's."
"Anything to suggest where Hanmoul went?"
The Strider's scanning array continued its work for several minutes; eventually, the cockpit shook itself in a life-like manner. "Maybe, there was a battle here, a running skirmish— but the tracks lead to at least two tunnels— both of which are not the ones Hilda took."
"Looks to me like someone's herding Hanmoul onto a different course," Richard offered a hypothesis.
"Ariel? Cali?" Gwen asked her Familiars. "Buck? Astro?"
The Conjured creatures milled about aimlessly.
"I see, good thing we've got Gogo here with us." Gwen turned to her Wyvern. If her dogs couldn't pick up scent or vitality, then she had to turn to an expert. "Alright, Bud— what does your Dragon nose see?"
"The lingering traces of Earthen mana down those tunnels stink like Dwarves." Golos huffed with smugness. "All around the entrances, there's befouled mana, though it remains the thickest down the first tunnel. I don't smell this Hilda or her troops, meaning they passed some time ago. The scent of the white freaks remains fresh, maybe hours old, and there's something else."
"Well done. What is it?" Gwen beamed at the Wyvern.
"Hehe…" Golos' nostrils flared. "I smell fresh tortoise-suits, ones from the city. They passed here an hour ago. I'd say six or seven of them, all burning with activity."
"Impossible!" Rori's Strider tilted to one side. "We're the only expedition to leave the city since Hanmoul's gone missing. Maybe you're picking up their patrol residue?"
"Fool." Golos bared its fangs. "Do not question my nose, squat. This latest presence carries the mana-smog from your stench-strewn hovel. To one as august as myself, the fetor of your underground den is unforgettable, especially the impure Elemental Fire you use to produce the liquid powering your engines."
"Gogo," Gwen berated the Wyvern. "Don't be rude."
"If Golos is right." Richard patted Lea's disembodied head as she appeared and disappeared. "And there's a third force from the city complicating things for us. Then we have to decide to find Hanmoul or Hilda first."
"Anything on the Echo Glyph?" Gwen hovered closer to the Strider.
"Nothing yet." Within the cockpit, Hanmoul's cousin shook her head.
"My Orb says this way." Gwen pointed down the stone passage where an
"objective" might eventually be found. "But let's spring clean before we go. I wouldn't want to find Hanmoul or Hilda while cornered by swarms of Aberrants from either side. Cali, you take the pack and head down the first tunnel. Astro, take yours and clear the second. Ariel, you take Richard's pack down the third."
"Umzokwe will take the south-west entrance with my Leech-dogs," Jean-Paul said helpfully.
"Thanks, J-P." Gwen gave him a thumbs up. "Alright, BUFF UP, and then let's see what our Dachshunds ferret from the mole mounds."
"Jackpot near the end of the first tunnel." Gwen awoke from her meditation after only fifteen minutes. "Cali just stirred the hornet's nest by taking a chunk out of what must be their breeder or something. I've regenerated two dogs already— holy hell; these guys are PISSED—"
"How many?" Richard was up on his feet in an instant. "How far?"
"A few hundred, two minutes or so out—" Gwen observed the faraway action through her Caliban VR. "Cali found them about two, two-and-a-half kilometres down behind a mud wall. They were all huddled up in an alcove of sorts, kind of like a giant wasp nest, lots of goo surrounding a big vitality signature. I told Cali to dig through, and I think it ended up inside a flesh sack."
Rori's Golem roared back into life. Bringing her weapons to bear with a thrum, the Dwarf turned to their party leader. "Hurdal, Hurdan, combat formation. Magus Song, what's the plan?"
"Gogo, Lea, Richard, we'll be counting on you," Gwen said to their defenders. "Pats, keep an eye on Gracie. We're Life-linked, and there's going to be plenty of vital-fluctuations in a moment. Rori, fire-at-will, but stay behind the dogs and the Familiars."
"Gracie, behind me," Petra commanded the obedient novice. By her will, the Nephrite Hounds formed a vigilant circle around the party. "You too, Gwen. Stay safe and don't stray too deep. Your Sanguine Mantle isn't invincible."
"I'll try not to be a burden." Gracie took a deep breath, her bosoms rising and falling as she activated her battle suit's inbuilt Abjuration suite. From the front of the party, Gwen gave her a reassuring thumbs-up.
Golos walked into the middle of the five-way interchange and unslung his Smasher's chain axe. Cracking his neck, the Wyvern stretched out his impressive physique, allowing his tail to skitter across the floor, striking electric sparks every time it bounced off the rough granite.
From the tunnel now, they could smell a foul wind and hear the sound of hooting and howling growing stronger with every passing second.
"Gwen," Jean-Paul spoke up. "I've found a pack in the fourth tunnel as well. These must be the reserve forces. Umzokwe reports enormous vital signatures. I suspect they may be the Aberrant Hulks or the Centaur variants that Rori said we should stay away from."
"Think you can handle it?" Gwen's eyes dug into her party member. "Make your Meister proud?"
"I can do it." Jean-Paul's face grew beet red. "I haven't slacked off while you trained."
"That's what I like to hear." Gwen turned once more to their Illusionist, in case she felt left out. "Gracie, is your Phantasmic Forces good to go?"
"Absolutely," the young woman affirmed. "I'll run interference with Hallucinatory Terrain if I can manage, though I imagine Illusion has limited impact when they're as mad as they sound."
"Take it at your own pace." Gwen returned her attention to the first tunnel, happy that what she had hypothesised for their underground adventure was coming to pass. "Ariel, Astro, return!"
The howling from the tunnel was now at a decibel level that irritated their ears. Like a foul and swollen pustule given an unexpected channel, Caliban's sudden and unprovoked rampage in the Aberrants nesting site had sent the mustered Aberrants into a blind, rage-fuelled frenzy.
"Incoming!" Rori counted the blimps on her instruments before declaring the results aloud. "It's a wave! O, Byllelynn Møsvian, consign me to Deepholm if I should perish in victory!"
Gwen took a deep breath. If there was anything she had learned from Walken's tales of Sobel in the confined chambers of Sydney Tower, it was that Void Mages possessed unprecedented advantages when fighting in enclosed spaces against living beings. Like a conductor commanding unseen music, she called the mnemonic invocations to her lips, then began the long chant for one of her favourite spells, one that would keep any number of creatures at bay so long as they could not supersede the spell's area of effect.
"SKARRRR—ARRRGGHH—" the horde had arrived.
At once, the forefront of the Aberrant wave smashed into an invisible Wall of Water conjured by Richard, slowing their descent into the five-way junction. It took a moment for the momentum of the distended bodies to break through the membrane, but by then Gwen was ready.
"EXTENDED BLADE BARRIER!" Ashamedly, she wove the spell-shaped incantation inefficiently, burning more vitality and mana than she had anticipated. If Magister Kareena Patil were with her, she would likely roll her eyes. Still, Gwen felt that credit should be given for manifesting a tier 7 Conjuration-Evocation in unmitigated Void without burning herself silly.
"Shaa!" Caliban shivered like a dog in the rain when she tapped into its vitality via their Sympathetic Life-link. For Gwen, her Master's unique Shaman-craft conversion was the Magnus Opus of her year's worth of academic investment. For years, she knew that Caliban stowed vitality within itself, hoarding life like a greedy little piggy bank. Now, thanks to her Master's hidden cache, she knew how to draw on that reservoir and share it among herself and her life-linked "minions".
"Oh, Gods." Gracie's complexion turned white and then red as the vitality distributed between them ebbed and flowed, manifesting as barely perceptible threads of scarlet connecting their Astral Souls.
Undeterred, Gwen began work on a second, Lightning-based Blade Barrier, this one spell-shaped into a ring that lined the top and bottom of the shaft.
The Aberrant tide broke free from Richard's boggy barrier.
The monsters poured into the entrance and its concentric rings of whirling mana as a single mass of tangled legs and scribbling claws, barrelling into her defences. Where the Void Blades struck, there was nary a sound, only an inaudible hiss as flesh, bone and sinew grew displaced, producing mince on the other side. Gwen did her best to replenish the spent "teeth" of her Blade Barrier with each dead beast, marvelling that though the Void barrier was without equal, her Lightning variant's efficiency was comparatively unparalleled.
"Buck! Astro!" Her dogs, repositioned from drawing the monster's aggression, took on the stragglers that emerged, tearing the wounded creatures apart.
"SHAA! SHAA!" Not wanting to waste the splendid vitality, Caliban re-engaged by sauntering forward on the ceiling in its Spider-form to pick out the still-living Aberrants from the floor, stuffing them greedily into its mucus-dribbling abdomen-maw.
"Ariel!" The crackling sorceress sent a flood of Elemental Lightning into her Kirin. "Empowered Lightning Bolt!"
Three lines of hysterical electricity turned the dim tunnel from dusk to morning, alternating in their strikes so that barely two seconds passed before another thigh-thick line of plasma tore into the surging crowd. Visually transformed into a proverbial spell-turret, the Devourer of Shenyang allowed herself to indulge in the intoxication of absolute power, revelling in the helplessness of the flailing monstrosities being crushed and broken beneath her dagger heels.
"Looks like you got this. I'll go and help J-P, shall I?" Richard turned his attention to the fourth tunnel.
"Agreed. I'll be over there." Golos moved across the aisle when a minute passed, and not a single Aberrant made it past the twin Blade Barriers. As demonstrated by their betters on the Northern Front, few spells were so explicitly effective when used against middling Swarms of middle-tier monsters.
But their mistress wasn't listening to her teammates' bored complaints. Her pupils grew wider and bluer with excitement as the Lightning mana coursed through her conduits to vivify her nubile figure, sending out sparks to sizzle the air. After so long stuck behind the books, she had let loose all the pent up stress accrued by living in high society, rediscovering the joy of free-living in a Frontier that sanctioned mass murder.
Monstrous ichor bled down the ramp and pooled below the entrance like a foul soup, stopped only when the party's Mineral Mage conjured a grease trap to contain the dizzying volume of diced offal meandering their way.
In front of Petra, Meister Bekker's ward followed his counterpart's fusillade so intently that he almost forgot he also had monsters incoming. Only when Umzokwe took a chunk of his vitality did Jean-Paul shift his attention from Gwen's silhouette of ongoing destruction, returning his mind to the labour at hand.
That Gwen used her talents and accrued power and wealth for herself— not to mention revelling in both— was something his Meister Master applauded and therefore Jean-Paul genuinely admired.
From the tunnel, the mangled body of one of his Leech Hounds came flying up the incline to paint the walls purple and black. The carcass rolled a few times before Umzokwe renewed the vital-infusion, allowing the Hound to stagger back onto its spindly legs.
Catching his breath, Jean-Paul concentrated. His craft was custom-composed by the Mevrou for efficiency, a style that diverged wildly from Gwen's sweeping gestures of grandeur. Looking at how his counterpart was expending vitality and mana, there was little wonder early Void Sorceresses drained themselves to death while executing their IMS-inspired invocations.
"ROOOWAAARRRRGH—" The first of the Centaurs appeared, a multi-legged monstrosity with an enormous pale head sunken into the torso, split from the middle to form a "T" shaped mouth lined with independently moving teeth. At the forefront, two massively powerful legs ended in scribbling, distended hooks, with the index finger manifesting as a single scythe-claw. Behind its torso, a bulbous thorax ended in skittering legs akin to Caliban's Spider-form. What Jean-Paul had thought most peculiar, comparatively, were a pair of human-like legs senselessly dangling near its silk-drooling rear.
"How strangely beautiful." Jean-Paul admired the design of the creature, awed that something dark and esoteric had engineered the being. "You know, I feel almost sorry…"
"J-P!" Richard cried out. "Stop perving on the bloody thing and render it to goo!"
"Right." The Void Mage called the Quickened spell to his lips and finished before his incantations shaped and manifested the mana. "Usurp!"
A bean of Void appeared just in front of the Aberration, far too subtle for it to detect with tremor-sense. The next second, the party's foremost assailant walked right into the dark dot, at which point its expression changed from blind range to horrific fascination.
"Drain!" Jean-Paul activated the second part of his spell. The bean of Void, now enveloped in the flesh, rapidly expanded, consuming its prison with such a voracious appetite that it blew up to ten-times its size.
The Aberrant Hulk tottered forward, a cylinder of emptied flesh appearing between its chest and its damaged spine.
"GARRRRRGGH—" it choked.
"SKARRRRRGK— SKAARRG!" Halfway between Hulks and Crawlers, two more creatures escaped from Richard's meniscus of water with no visible concern for their forerunner.
"Implode!" Jean-Paul allowed the orb of Void to reach critical mass before releasing its latent energies, sending a splattering splash of tenebrous ink in every direction. When inevitably the creatures ran teeth-first into the viscous Void-ink, he redoubled his focus.
"Drain!" the Void Mage controlled as much of the Void Mana as he was able, then began the ritual anew. At his present tier of expertise, he could manage just three orbs. Thankfully, so long as his spell could find fresh flesh, he could maintain the cycle indefinitely until either his vitality failed or his concentration lapsed from spell fatigue.
Or when something interrupted his spell cycle.
"ROARRRR!" A line of Lightning, thicker than Caliban in its serpent form, washed over Hulks and Crawlers' incoming troop, reducing the first three to charred stumps.
"You dispelled my Wall of Replenishing Water." Richard sighed at the Wyvern. "Lord Golos, please give us a warning, Lea put a lot of effort into that."
"You folks are having too much fun." The Wyvern shrugged, hefting its axe. "Oi, you, Pale Calamity— let a few over. Let's see how they are in a real fight."
"Um… should I…" Gracie raised her hand.
"Maybe practice a few Illusions on the stragglers while Lord Golos stretches his limbs," Richard advised. "I wouldn't get between him and his fun."
"Hee hee, good Human." The Wyvern grinned cruelly. "Ah, there's a fat one!"
True to Golos' observation, there was indeed a "Hulk" of an Aberrant approaching, a bipedal elephant-monster with a tentacled face and arms as large as its disproportionate upper torso. From afar, the thing resembled a striding, muscular tumour armed with teeth and claw.
"GARRRRRGH—!" The Aberrant barged through the floating field of Void Orbs, demonstrating an abnormal mass of elemental resistance.
On their side, Golos waited for the Hulk to drop its shoulder and begin its charge. Digging his heels in, the True Dragon-kin suffused his limbs with the Essence gifted by his progenitor, then let loose with a rip-roaring buzz from the chain axe.
The two connected, the "Smasher Axe" bashing the creature so totally that the overstressed metal cracked, the chains slipped, and the obsidian teeth grew jarred as they bit into its flesh. As for the Hulk itself, there was a mangled groan of crushed bone and rending flesh, then an explosion of sound signalling the unhappy consequence of two unstoppable objects meeting in disharmony.
"YEAARRRGH!" Unhappy with the splintered weapon in his hand, Golos brought his tail to bear, striking the still-charging siege-Aberrant in the face to pulverise its skull with a sodden thunk.
The Aberrant collapsed as its innards blew out of its ass. Comparatively, Golos lost only a dozen scales as the monster's maw raked his chest and shoulders, leaving the Wyvern bloodied and delighted.
Richard put up a Water Shield to prevent the Aberrant Hulk's flayed flesh assailing Gracie and the other Mages.
"Ha! See that, puny mortals?" The Wyvern congratulated itself as it wiped away a mouthful of arguably poisonous, corrosive ichor. "Now that's a fight, you tortoises! MORE, PALE ONE! GIVE ME TWO THIS TIME, A WORM AND A FAT ONE! "
Gwen kept up the barriers and the bolts until her mind grew woozy from the fatigue, a feeling not dissimilar to taking too many Jägerbombs while racing the Happy Hour at the harbour. The Essence and vitality Caliban had picked up from the stragglers kept her awake and hail, but the mental drain of formulating so much magic so quickly and in such volume was taking its toll.
When finally she ceased her firing, dispelled the barriers and set the dogs to work, there was only the plinking of cooling silica inside the tunnel, that and the occasional scrabbling of creatures unfortunate enough to be still alive.
"You didn't have to spend all of your mana." Richard reached her side. "Nice work, nonetheless."
"I am on about half-tank," she said sheepishly. "Lightning Bolts don't cost much, nor do Void spells."
"… sure." Richard gave her an appreciative pat on the back. "Rori, how's it looking?"
"Four hundred and sixty-five Crawlers and six Hulks and eight Centaurs." Came a trembling voice behind their battle line. From the cockpit visor, they could see the Dwarf woman's expression was comparable to one who'd seen the Seven Ancestors rise from the grave to the tune of Michael Jackson's Thriller. "By the Sju Dorfran, I hope Magus Song is not representative of all Himmseg Mages."
"One would wish." Richard laughed. "I tell you truly, Rori, if everyone's like Gwen up there, we'll be ruling the Prime Material in no time— lucky for all life on earth, Gwen is unique."
"Don't forget Sobel." Gwen stretched, then wrinkled her nose. "Pats, could you…"
"Earth Shape!" Petra warped the stone so that the enormous pit of offal became covered by a rough mound of transmuted stone.
"Thanks." Gwen breathed better once the death pit flattened. "So, is that it?"
"That would be a significant number," Bumrorlim Vildrenbrandt said with a tone of relief. "I would additionally advise that we clear the Aberrants' nest."
"Is it important?" Gwen asked.
"Aye," the Golem pilot replied. "They'll replenish soon enough, assuming there's enough Aberrants left to feed the nest and gender more of their kind."
"Terrifying, how are these monsters procuring supplies?" Gwen cocked her head. "And there's also the fact that 'city Dwarves' passed here only recently. What's the deal with that? And we know it wasn't Hanmoul— assuming there's no way they could have dealt with what we just Purged, who are these Dwarves and how did they pass?"
Rori ashamedly shook her head. "I don't have an answer for you, Magus Song."
"We'll find out soon enough," Richard assured them. "For now, time is of the utmost importance. Do you think Cali can deal with the nest?"
"I'll send Umzokwe to help," Jean-Paul offered. "And the Leech Hounds. They're not nearly as fast as yours."
"Then Buck and the Void Pack will keep scouting." Gwen struck a thumb toward the tunnel where Hanmoul should have passed a week or more ago. "I'll send a troop of Hydras up to the nest to clean up. J-P, please ensure nothing with a mote of vitality remains. Ariel, Cali, go with Umzokwe, I'll check on you with Sight Link."
The rest of the party stepped back while Gwen conjured up three Hydras, each resembling Caliban in its primitive, original form— a carapaced slug-serpent with a bullet-shaped armoured head possessed of no face. These were her latest summons, slithering stomaches whose only purpose was to gather vitality for their mistress.
"Shaa-Shaa!" Caliban guided its new minions onwards. Together with Umzokwe, the roving mass of all-consuming Void beast went on their merry way, shepherded by an invisible Ariel.
"Also, Gogo." Gwen turned to her stinking Wyvern, who was currently picking out bits of bone and claw from his carapace while reliving the thrill of combat. "You take the front. Dick, can you give him a cleanup? He smells like the bloody pits."