When Hilda was a girl-child with only a slight wisp of facial hair, she had the honour of conversing with her Clan's Balefire Guardian. Her father, the venerable Lord Seer Bermyr Kül, had been in a session with the Grand Citadel Council to deliver the Craftsmen's Guilds' quarter-cycle Devlar on Dwarven Productivity. His negligence had left Hilda free to wander the Grand Hall of Gul-Zūh, where she had taken the rare opportunity to make mischief.
At the door to the Chamber of the Eternal Cog, she was stopped by a smouldering gauntlet almost as wide as herself.
"Thou cannot go that way, child." The voice that emerged from the vox-box communed with her through vibrations that tapped into her Core. "For one as youthful as thee, the deep-knowledge is Vadam."
At four metres, Lord Engineseer Urmrak Kül was over five hundred years old. He had consigned his Core to the Eternal Forge during the Long Siege when the Elemental Princes of the Deep had sealed off the Dyar Morkk in an attempt to starve the Dwarven city.
The result of that conflict— in no small part thanks to the ignition of the Soul Forge and the men and women who stepped up to the Glyph to consign their Cores— was a total defeat for the Elementals. For Deepholm, the victory ushered in a brief Golden Age of wealth and expansion, resulting in the rise of "Murk" Dwarves and their surface Citadels.
"Lord Urmra..." Hilda had bowed deep until she almost prostrated. Children like her, benefactors of the epoch of plenty, were taught from birth that their lives were indebted to the sacrifices of these noble Spirits. "It is not my intention to enter. I was merely curious."
"Then turn thine eyes away." The Golem-being rumbled, as did the chamber as it spoke. "Trouble not this old soul."
Unable to resist, she had reached out and touched the complex Glyph-work on the Dwarf's plating. Though young, her gift for inscriptions had already made her blood-line talents manifest.
"Does it hurt?" Her fingers traced the runes. "There's so much mana… the burden on your Core, Lord Urmrak, must be unbearable."
Urmrak's armour used his face's likeness in life; when the Balefire Golem peered down to regard the girl-child, the evanescent runes had cast an unexpectedly melancholic shadow over Hilda.
"The 'Rite' is bearable…" the Golem had droned, its eye sockets were now empty and dark, two black holes were vibrant eyes full of wisdom would have once been seated. "That, dear child, us Balefires must believe above all else."
Hilda felt her Core shudder with recollection as the venerable White Beard ducked under the lip of the archway leading to the makeshift hall.
"Lord Thalmar." Her voice modulator kept her emotions in check, though Varekan-Kül, blessed be her Ancestor, knew that a part of her just wanted to scream. "Your arrival is most welcome in this dire time."
"Aye, tis Dire—" The Balefire Golem's voice rumbled. Its Core-housing helmet was of an unprecedented design and not in a good way. Back home, the traditional Balefire patterns were highly personalised. Each Golem was unique, carefully modelled after the likeness of the sacrificed Engineseer or Master and explicitly stylised with Runes and patterns that told their life's work. A Balefire hailing from a Crafter's House, for example, would usually sport motifs of hammer and tongs and wield tools the Master had used in life. One descended from a Warrior's Noble House would usually occupy the Dreadnaught or the Berserks body, becoming a living embodiment of valour.
Thalmar's body, as far as she could see, was a rushed piece of work. The helmet had not the likeness of Thalmar in life, famous for his broken and shattered nose— a proud relic of his younger brawling days, but was entirely nondescript. Horrifically, if she had to place her fingers on the anvil, she would complain that the craftsmanship was a sham for someone as august as Emgus Thalmar, Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth's Master Maker of Arms.
"— But is any of this necessary?" the Golem continued. "Thou should have remained in the Citadel and listened to thy elders. Now, for thy selfish ambition, thy kin shall all suffer."
Hilda felt the heat rise but had learned enough to will the biochemical apparatuses in her suit to cool her head before the sentimental sympathy for the old codger faded.
"I shall not contest your displeasure, Lord Thalmar." Hilda glanced at her Keeper to see if her fellow Deepdowner had an objection. As expected, Ebren stood stoic and without a word while his Mistress took the helm. "To that end, Lord Thalmar, do you have recommendations from the Citadel?"
"I have." The nondescript visor smouldered. "Thou art to cease thy foolish act and return at once."
"That, I cannot entertain." Hilda's voice grew instantly stern. "Lives have been lost, Lord Thalmar, and many have paid the price. To withdraw now would be to disregard their sacrifice and contribution."
The Golem did not immediately respond, but stared at Hilda, making her scalp crawl even inside her Klad. Unlike her House Guardian, there was something deeply menacing about Thalmar, particularly the way his eyes smouldered, leaking Elemental Magma. "Thou would refuse?"
"I do not mean to be ungrateful. Yet I cannot be swayed from my course." Hilda held her breath as she fought the inner conflict of duty against tradition. She owed Thalmar an enormous debt— but she was in the right that personal gratitudes should not influence a Citadel's commitments. She had no idea what Zairic and Zethoag Gul-Zūh had offered the Engineseer to give up his existence as a Dwarf, but she understood the act must be directed toward herself.
For a moment, their contesting mana aura meeting mid-air grew thick enough to ignite the resting runes on Ebren's Klad.
"— I can sense thy conviction." The Golem fumed, releasing an ear-piercing shrill as its internal gasses escaped.
"If there is anything else milady may entertain..." Ebren spoke in that soft and melancholy voice of his, usually disguised by his modified vox box.
The Golem's light fell on Ebren, lingered rudely, then returned to Hilda.
"Very well, what I ask for instead is an opportunity to offer you instruction from the Masters, Gul-Zūh and Gul-Zūh. They know that thou will not meet them alone, so I have come bearing an Echo Device. Fraron!"
A Dwarf in his Murk Diver's suit shuffled forward and presented an obsidian cube inscribed with enough Runes to make the average Runesmith dizzy.
"A request for an audience is hardly appropriate for a debt of this magnitude," Hilda refuted the Engineseer's well-wishes at once. "I will listen."
"We wish to converse in private," Thalmar clarified his position with a low rumble. "We desire the knowledge of everything thou knows of this 'Devourer of Shenyang'. And in the aftermath of our meeting, we ask for Ancestor Møsvian's Silence."
For a brief second, even in her Klad, Hilda appeared taken aback. Møsvian's Silence, Hilda understood, was a sacred promise passed between the ordained scholars of Deepholm. In the original psalm, Møsvian the Skald was told of Brumdahr's shame, and though honour would dictate that the singer would inform the people, the battle Skald chose to keep a vow of silence for a decade while Brumdahr made amends for his trespass.
In the present day, Møsvian's Silence was a vow to the Ancestors that what passes between confessing Dwarves would remain among them unto death. When invoked, the Vow passed on knowledge and shameful secrets, and its violation would invalidate the "Oath Breaker", no matter the intrigue.
As for knowledge of her Human ally, Hilda understood Thalmar's wariness, for the sorceress had been instrumental in bringing Humans into the Murk.
If they were in the Citadel, there would be no way Hilda would willingly be subject to the burden that Møsvian's Silence would engender— certainly not when the deliverers are Zairic and Zethoag Gul-Zūh, two purity-obsessed fanatics from Umgor èron Varèkan. But for her present circumstance, to refuse even distant communication with the brothers while under the auspice of debt from their aide was arrogance too far even for a Kül-Hildenbrandt.
"Very well." Hilda could feel herself sweating despite the perfect environs of her Klad. "Ebren, prepare the conference room for privacy, then leave us. Until they are satisfied, Engineseer Thalmar and I will converse with our seniors from Umgor èron Varèkan."
When the party ran face-first into a clogged tunnel made impassable by battle debris, Gwen volunteered the vitality vacuumed up from the Aberrant nest to utilise Caliban in its Wyrm guise.
Several rationales supported such a lavish expenditure— first because the excess vitality shared between herself, Cali and Gracie was making them giddy and far too excitable, and secondly because she wanted to test Caliban's abilities as a digger to salvage lost time spent in transit.
Thankfully, her hopeful hypothesis proved on-point. Akin to the giant Wyrm Caliban had consumed a year prior, it began to writhe and drill at the shattered and fractured rock wall, clearing a path forward.
"Think Cali could manage to emulate a Fabricator?" Gwen fell into step beside Hanmoul as they watched the Wyrm excavate its way downward and forward. A few of the Dwarves were marking the Omni-orb's path, for even a few degrees of error could send them somewhere entirely off course. "After which we can get Human Transmuters to put up concrete supports and pillars."
"If it's only this size." Hanmoul studied the diagnostic data on his Swiftstrider. "But if yer wants the tunnel to stick around, keep to Dwarven engineering."
Caliban's width and girth meant that its tunnel was enough for someone like Gwen to walk through if she stooped, though if she desired to install a mass transit system, it would mean doubling Caliban's girth.
"Shaa!" Caliban made its pleasure known. As for its Master, her spine-tingled as the Void consumption withdrew the energy and mana her Familiar needed to digest and process the rocks.
"That's a shame." She checked that Gracie was coping well, and the young woman gave her an affirming nod. In her opinion, her newest ward was rapidly gaining confidence as she witnessed the true potential of Void magic. Though Richard had joked about the possibility that she may very well be breeding a new Sobel, thereby completing her Master's Path in totality— Gwen knew that with Essence Tap, she would have mastery over Gracie until one of them died. Such was the barbarity of Shamanistic Magic— and such was the rationale behind why seemingly "useful" Wildland sorcery was shunned by the Shard. Compared to invocations like Morden's Hound that's widely lauded and rapidly becoming a Conjuration staple, her "Kilroy Collection" remained ethically ambiguous at the best of times.
However, through her conversations with Walken, her Executive Officer remarked that the Shard applauded her exemplary monetary investments. One of the elements that defined Sobel was her withdrawal from a centralised political system. The Tower trusted Kilroy or had no choice but to believe that he would keep a tab on his Missus— though in hindsight such boundless freedom was a catastrophic mistake. Comparatively, with so many stakes in the city and the Mageocracy itself, including her extended family, the Mageocracy's offices felt at ease that Magus Song's commitment manifested as concrete and glass.
While she mulled over her Himmseg circumstances, Cali's rock crushing continued. To widen and then fortify the shattered tunnel with their lightly equipped Dwarven Swiftstrider took some effort, meaning the party had to toil even though Caliban had expedited the process by ten-fold.
"Shaa-Shaa!" Caliban hissed again from somewhere within its undulating, pulsating torso, its shrieks reverberating through the smoothly-bored walls.
"Cali says," Gwen translated for the rest. "We're almost near the end."
"Lots of signs of combat," Hanmoul remarked from his vox, his Swiftrunner pinging the walls with beeps and trills from its sonar. "Loose rubble, but also fused by Dwarven Runecraft. I am a bit curious as to what occurred."
"Maybe Hilda sealed themselves in?" Gwen asked.
"That makes sense," Petra, who had been helping the Dwarves, agreed. "The easiest way to keep safe would be walling the Aberrants out."
"I disagree." Richard chuckled, his voice echoing sinisterly in the flickering light emitted by Gwen's Lightning Hounds. "If you ask me, I reckon this is for walling folks in…"
"HOLD FIRE!" Hanmoul bellowed into the newly excavated and connected tunnel. "WE'RE BROADCASTING FRIENDLY GLYPHS! YER MURK-HEADS!"
Gwen felt an unbidden heat flush ripple through her body as the explosion on the other side of the wall ripped through Caliban's innards. Someone on the Citadel-side must have been surprised when an "Earthen Wyrm" without a smidgen of Earthen mana burst through the debris with a whirling maw of circular teeth and gobbling tongues flailing in every direction. For that reason, she was not upset, though Caliban's temper had taken a feat of will to banish "under" the underground.
To her relief, the Dwarves opposite did cease their Magma Bombs, Lava Bursts and Obsidian Shards once Hanmoul put himself between the retreating Caliban and harm's way. The Dwarf also had Lea to thank, for the Commandrumm of the Iron Guards would have taken a rippling blast to the canopy had her water barriers not diverted the heat and pressure.
As a show of loyalty, her Dwarves went first with their Striders to parley, after which Gwen and company emerged with hands slightly raised to show that they meant no harm, keeping their army of pets in the back chamber to prevent agitating the trigger-happy Iron Guards.
As they emerged, Gwen could see that they were in an enormous cathedral of dark granite, the largest she had encountered since delving into the Murk. On the far side, some several hundred meters away, stood the scarred battlements of the Obsidian Cavern. From what she could discern, the freshly churned earth below its battered walls still oozed black blood.
"What's the meaning of this?" Hanmoul's Strider popped its cockpit with a release of pressurised gas. "Bronzehorn! Why are your vox-units turned off? Where's Engineseer Hilda?"
Gwen had expected this "Captain Bronzehorn" to fall out of his cockpit and grovel for forgiveness. To her surprise, there wasn't even a popped cockpit.
"I see the Humans have sent their reinforcements." The Dwarf's tone was entirely apathetic.
"Aye that they have." Hanmoul waited for his counterpart to show his face. When the Captain failed to dispense even the slightest remorse, his tone grew dark. "Captain, as the Commandrumm of the Iron Guards, I am giving you an order to speak truthfully. What's happening? Where's her Eminence?"
"Her Eminence is inside," Bronzehorn's vox crackled. "I've reported your arrival."
Gwen led her party within walking distance of the Smashers, then stopped with both hands raised, keeping Golos at the party's rear. She could see the roughed-up Golem suits still had their Spellsword hot and sizzling, casting no doubt as to what had struck Caliban. "Hanmoul. Are we cool now?"
"We will be," Hanmoul ordered his Dwarves to fan out between the Humans and his kin. "Bronzehorn's not himself. Could be war-wariness, or a touch of the Murk Madness. It frays the nerves when yer've fought Aberrants for too long, making folk see and think things that are not there."
"Alright, how about an official approach?" Gwen raised a hand to signal her arrival. "Captain Bronzeborn! You are addressing Magus Gwen Song of the Shard! I have come to retrieve our Mages and resupply our allies. Tell your Eminence a friend has come to aid her in her time of need."
"Ah, about that," Bronzehorn's voice broadcasted across the distance between them. "The Deepdowner doesn't need yer help anymore, Human— she's safe now, and she gave express orders for you to leave the Murk."
"Bronzeborn! Insolent boy! What does that mean?" Hanmoul's temper flared. "We risked my men coming ter save her! Yer telling me that was fer nought? Deal with us? Send back an Echo Message! Tell the Deepdowner we're not her lackeys! I ain't leaving until the lassie learns some respect and we see the Citadel safe and secured!"
"If you know what's good for you." The Golem's tinted cockpit observed first Gwen and then his Commandrumm with visible agitation. "You should go. Lord Thalmar has arrived with a contingent of his Deep Divers. They mopped up the Aberrants and are in council with Mistress Hilda. You're not needed anymore."
"Thalmar? The Maker of Arms? What's a bleeding Cogmen doing digging in the Murk?" From Hanmoul's incredulous expression, Gwen took it that the news came as a shock for the Commandrumm. "The Engineseer's three centuries old, fer Bürumm's sake! Did he get carried here on a Swiftrunner? His beard was down to here! He—"
Hanmoul suddenly stopped talking.
The ring of Rock Smashers, broken and mangled as they are from cycles of ceaseless siege, had formed a semi-circle with Gwen and Hanmoul at the centre of their crossfire.
"I am sorry, Commandrumm." The Captain's voice lost all joy. "Return now. Those are my orders."
Around them, the Iron Guards raised their weapons.
Hanmoul's Swiftstriders raised their Shields.
Profanities exploded from Hanmoul while both of his hands signalled the curse of the Thrice-Jammed Cog.
Just in case, Gwen checked the hovering orb still veering toward the Citadel's depth. If the orb's mystical energies were correct, what she "desired", meaning Hilda, was still inside the Citadel.
More than Hilda, however, what worried her was where the hell their Mages had gone. There were at least sixty-odd adventurers inside the Dwarven Citadel. If Hilda wasn't in the mood to greet them, or if this Thalmar has taken control, then what of her men and women? What happens to the grass in the middle when two elephants fought?
"Calamity." Golos' voice drifted across to the inner circle where Gwen watched Hanmoul rave at the Third Legion's seditious Captain.
"Gogo?" Gwen offered an ear to the Wyvern. "What's the matter? Are you hungry? Bored? I am afraid I didn't expect this. I'll tell you what though, get ready for trouble. This 'Murk' business is turning out murkier than we could have imagined. So much for the simplicity of Dwarven honour."
"I smell Dwarves," Golos informed her.
Gwen wrinkled her nose. She had to agree, for Captain Bronzehorn and his battered troops stank of old engine oil, burnt paint and unfiltered, badly combusted mana.
"Daft female!" The Wyvern gnashed his teeth. "I mean the ones who came before us. I smell them here."
"I would imagine so." Gwen struck a thumb toward the Citadel's scarred surface. "You're smelling Thalmar, I guess? They managed to save Hilda before we got here. I doubt that's a coincidence. It looks to me like these new Deepdowners have got it in for us and are trying to prevent Hilda from owing us a solid one."
"Nay, there's something else." The Wyvern's nostrils inhaled and exhaled. "It's in the air. Something stinks like those white ones."
Gwen glanced at the mass graves bleeding dark ichor. "They've killed hundreds, or so they say, and their blood makes the land fallow. Is that what you smell?"
"They hid the scent." Golos glanced at the Citadel suspiciously, his slitted eyes hardening. "But it is in there. I can taste their polluted Essence mingled with the Dwarves. They're a single creature, Calamity—"
"Do you smell our Mages?" Gwen suddenly realised she could have asked Golos all along.
"I do," Golos grunted. "They're weak, but they should yet live."
Gwen paused to look at the livid Hanmoul and the unmoving vehicle of Bronzehorn, neither of whom understood a word of Draconic, unlike those of her party members who had come adequately provisioned.
Should she abide by Golos' deductions?
If the question was whether she trusted the Wyvern to pass on a message, she would feel ambivalent. As an Essence-based bloodhound, however, she couldn't think of any reason why the Wyvern would lie.
At any rate, if the Human Adventurers did not make an appearance soon, she should probably expect the worst.
"Richard, get everyone ready." She delivered a Silent Message via her device. "JP— bring the dogs up. Gracie, follow JP. Pats, keep a few Cubes ready to go. If there's going to be a fight, let's not get caught flat-footed."
"Captain Bronzeborn," she concurrently interrupted the Dwarven defender, both of her pupils glowing green with Essence and Lighting. "Let me ask you one more time. Can you send out our Human Mages? Where are they?"
"They're inside," the Captain responded flatly.
"Are they being held as hostages?" Gwen asked. "Are they safe?"
The Dwarf took a moment to respond. "They are exhausted from the battles and need rest."
Gwen pointed a finger to the Citadel. "Captain. Do you know who I am?"
"Aye," the Captain answered. There was a pause; then Bronzehorn's vox crackled in a voice that was not his own. "Kill the Devourer."
A surge of mana gathered at the tip of Bronzehorn's Spellswords.
"Bronzeborn! Ingrate! Yer dares—" Hanmoul's cry cut off mid-howl as an invisible Ariel swept up the Commandrumm and threw the Dwarf back into his Swiftrunner Strider before he could come between Gwen and the Golem.
Besides Gwen, Golos launched forward with the swiftness of a Lightning Bolt. In a flash, the Wyvern caught the offending Spellsword attached to the Smasher's power-gauntlet and wrenched the thing from its mounting. In a follow-up motion, the Wyvern swung the dismounted weapon back toward the Rock Smasher, sinking the cracked and burning blade deep enough into the cockpit to deform the chassis.
"FIRE AT WILL!" Came a commanding cry from another Smasher at their encirclement. At once, the platoon of Smashers took up their arms and began to charge, a few even closing in for melee. "KILL THE DEVOURER!"
More so than the sudden hostility, Gwen felt puzzled by how a team of beaten mechanical constructs believed they could best a Mage Flight capable of piercing the Murk without so much as a hair out of place.
"Richard, I'll draw their fire and perform Recon-in-Force," Gwen fired off an order. "If Hilda's serious, tell Hanmoul to prepare to prioritise our men and women."
"What about these?" Richard replied with complete calm.
Compared to the uncharacteristic chaos displayed by the indecisive Iron Guards, Gwen's party fell into formation with instant clarity.
She Dimension Doored forward to draw the Golems' fire, understanding Richard's Undine would keep off the attackers' brunt. Her ulterior motive was to breach the Citadel itself to take a peek inside— ideally from the battlements to determine whether the Citadel and thereby Hilda herself had extenuating circumstances.
Behind her, Richard took to the fore, instantly concealing the space around the party with a blanket of mist. Jean-Paul positionedhimself in front of Gracie but put a safe distance behind Richard, a set of absorption spells ready to be ushered from his lips as Umzokwe materialised by his side. Gracie and Petra took up the final two spot in the line formation, keeping together and trusting their teams to keep them safe while they provided support.
Golos' meteor of a tail smashed into the War Golem that held Bronzehorn, toppling the Dwarven engine.
His impromptu barricade fell just in time, catching the worst of the Lava Burst and Obsidian Shards before the rest rolled mutedly over Golos' innate spell resistance. Lightning crackled across the Wyvern's carapace as Draconic Essence raged through his veins, almost doubling the Wyvern's dimensions. Opening his mouth, Golos roared at the closest pair of Rock Smashers.
"Insolent Earthen-apes! LOREAT!" the scion of the Yinglong proclaimed the construct's destruction. A line of living electricity pulsed in the dusky light of the Murk, vivifying the cavern for three fulminating seconds as a Rock Smasher spat plasma in every direction; its Earthen barrier clashing with Golos' Essence-derived Lightning Breath. The illumination was enough to turn Richard's mist white as snow and briefly reveal the compelling figure of Lea's hidden body, though the next moment, the Sprite faded into oblivion.
Petra blocked a dozen blows with Crystalline Walls and reactive barriers, keeping the slow-reacting Gracie safe as the novice did her best to stomach the noise and weave her spells.
Up ahead, the cathedral's combatants collectively held their breath while the Rock Smasher sizzled, both sides seeing if the Golem would hold or fold.
To the Dwarves' groaning disappointment, the cockpit spat out its coolant-drenched capsule before the remaining mana ignited in a fireball of blazing and burning that turned the cavern's upper stratum black with ash.
Gwen took advantage of the Wyvern's showy aggression to dodge criss-crossing lines of Elemental bolts, arriving near the hastily-constructed Citadel. Up close, she could see where its walls were still streaked and cracked where Aberrant fiends had perished against its stones.
As forewarned, this deep in the Murk, she could feel the sluggishness of her conduits trying to draw from the Gate of Lightning inside her Astral Body. For someone with her tier of Affinity, the stifling sensation was akin to singing through a face mask, where though her invocations were audible, their effects grew muffled.
Nonetheless, she had recklessly chosen Reconnaissance-in-Force because she had to know the extent to which she could exert the force of her party. Though the Dwarves inexplicably turned hostile, there was a dire difference between a skirmish to establish political advantage and a battle of mutual destruction.
Very quickly, she checked her Omni-orb.
It still tittered toward what she presumed to be Hilda.
"WE ARE A HUMAN DELEGATION FROM THE SHARD!" She addressed the fortress through Clarion Call. "BY ORDER OF COMMANDRUMM HANMOUL— IF YOU DON'T WANT A DIPLOMATIC INCIDENT, TELL YOUR MEN TO STAND DOWN!"
An answer soon arrived from the parapets, albeit not the apology Gwen had expected. Instead, gobs of acid and corrosive ooze emanated from Spellswords wielded by a group of Dwarves-in-black. Compared to the Iron Guards whose visage involved articulated mechanical plates and overlarge gauntlets with attached blades, these suits were more akin to the Deepdowner's armour, with full-face headgears resembling gas-masks from the Great War.
On the shoulders of these suits, Gwen could see their single-mounted Spellblades glow like tiny stars where attuned energies of Earth and Ooze and Mineral struck an apex before manifesting their payloads.
"Dimension Door!" It was clear that these Dwarves were unused to fighting Human Mages, which made sense considering there had been no overt contact, much less hostile conflict between their cities. Only a few of the offending explosions were aimed at where she may re-appear, and even then their marksmanship was embarrassingly wide.
A jolt through the Void later, she was only twenty-odd meters from the wall. Not knowing what was inside, she couldn't teleport in.
Should she capture one of these rubber-suited Dwarves and ask for Hilda and her Mages' whereabouts? Gwen quickly measured the possibility of such a thing. Whatever their plan had been, shit had now struck the fan. As their team leader, she had to take responsibility and offer a clear path by gathering information.
Just as Gwen eyed the wall for a possible angle to arrest a Dwarf, her spine tingled with a shriek, a sensation she had not felt for some time.
Sparing no time for hesitation, her Shield was up in less than the blink of an eye, though still not as fast as Lea, who had a commanding bird's eye view of the battlefield from above. Just as the Magma Bomb ripped out, the Undine's film of all-enveloping water doused the flames so that the impact that rolled over her consisted only of kinetic energy.
Gwen quickly measured the lightning-fast attack as she allowed the momentum to carry her backwards. The front of her double-glazed barrier instantly turned opaque, though it did not crack, suggesting a mid-tier manifestation.
Instead, what unnerved her was the swiftness by which the attack had manifested. With her Divination and her casting speed, Gwen seldom fell flat-footed, but that attack just now had sent her heart rate leaping into the mid-hundreds.
This time, she Dimension Doored twice in directions guided by her innate sense for danger, overriding her conscious decision making. Nils, her defence teacher, had promoted the stratagem as viable against enemies with foresight abilities.
As anticipated, the next two Lava Bursts struck close to home but landed far enough that Lea could negate the damage.
"Gwennie, look up! There's a big fire Dwarf casting spells without a Spellsword!" Lea's cry rang about her ears. "It's an Elder Elemental!"
After the first eruption, Gwen had a good idea of what she faced. The gate of Eth Rjoth Kjangtoth had given her a preview; only she hadn't expected an encounter so soon.
"No, it's a Balefire Golem," Gwen informed the Undine. She did not look up because there was no need. If there's a Balefire standing its ground, then she was confident there would be no breaking through the Dwarven battle lines by herself. The data provided by the Shard had stipulated very clearly that Balefire Golems, be they the Guardian variant or the siege-type Dreadnaught, were on par with ancient Elementals creatures, additionally reinforced by Dwarven Runecraft. Via their ever-burning cores, it was possible for these reborn "Dwarves" to instantly and without spell fatigue generate mid-tier sorcery unique to their professions in life. Additionally, they needed no food, no air, no water or shelter, and were arguably ageless.
A Balefire, therefore, could not be worn down— it can only be bested or overpowered.
The air around her grew scorching hot.
Another attack was coming, and the Balefire was biding its time.
"Tell the others to regroup, we—" Gwen was on the cusp of a long-ranging Dimension Door when she suddenly fell face-first into invisible wool. It was a sensation she knew well, though one she had not had the displeasure of encountering for a long time.
Gwen knew she was caught in the cusp of some long-ranging Mind Magic, though she couldn't tell if the assailant utilised Human or Demi-human sorcery. From the "lockout" of her senses, she further understood the effect to be akin to a "Hold Monster" in the middle-to-upper tier, a spell that Petra had utilised in the competition on their foes.
At once, she performed as her cousin had taught, clearing her mind of all thought and focusing only on circulating mana through her body at its maximum threshold. Disregarding her tingling conduits, she further added Essence so that her mind and body grew resilient against invasive forces.
"GWEN!" Lea's scream rippled through the air.
She had been caught only for a moment, no more than a second or two, but such an interval was an eternity for a sorceress dodging spellfire.
Her world grew momentarily white.
The Balefire's full-force Lava Bursts erupted almost on top of her, followed by acid and ooze and a dozen other globs of energised matter conjured by Dwarven Spellswords.
Lea instantly congealed into her humanoid form, forming a triple-layer of semi-sphere Water Shields to fend away the incoming assaults. Bodily, the Undine dived on top of Gwen, bowling her over so that the Demi-human's watery figure withstood the residual energies piercing through her protective veils. The blasts connected, sending the two skittering a dozen meters away from the Citadel, leaving a long line of gouged dirt where Gwen's armoured body had traversed, darkly stained by the gel-trail left by Lea's dissolving form.
Against her armour, Lea's shuddering figure grew impossible hot, the Undine's liquid flesh growing cloudy as charred impurities roughly penetrated her gel-like innards to lodge in her chest and abdomen.
At the Undine' moan of torturous agony, Gwen expelled the last of the psychic energies clouding her mind, restoring her adrenaline-addled brain to crystal clarity. With a hand half-struck into the Undine's side, she injected a flood of unmitigated Essence, then wrapping her arms around Richard's feverish Familiar, she formulated another Dimension Door through sheer force of will.
She needed a second, but as before, a single tick-tock was an eternity when a Balefire was laying down the full force of the Runic spells it knew in life.
Gwen clenched her teeth. There would be anguish; of that, she had no doubt. But after her agony, there would be a reckoning.
"USURP!" A mote of Void exploded just above the young women's entangled bodies. Jean-Paul's Signature Spell grew suddenly bloated as the manifesting mana was absorbed, then exploded as a fantastic nova of tenebrous ink, providing Gwen with the necessary split-second for her to complete the Conjuration uninterrupted.
When she re-appeared, she was a hundred meters away and returning to their original position.
By now, Golos was on his third Rock Smasher. As a Wyvern weened on Big Birds' flesh, the Dwarf's weapons were to him minor painful inconveniences. His choice then was to ignore cover and defence and solely focus on maximising ultraviolence.
Jean-Paul as well, before aiding Gwen with a series of Dimension Doors and a well-timed Usurp, had crippled a Smasher by taking away its armaments and its legs. Even Gracie, much to Gwen's surprise, had succeeded by utilising her Void-empowered Phantom Vertigo to send two Rock Smashers drunkenly careening into one another while firing wildly in every direction but theirs.
However, the most assuring sight was that of her armada of hounds, finally arriving to swarm over the remaining Smasher Golems, concurrently preventing them from attacking and serving to hinder the mechanised infantry.
The Void Mage gave her an eager nod, once again willing Umzokwe to engage.
"Is Lea alright?" She turned to Richard, who appeared to exhale as he dispelled the Undine clinging to her torso.
"She'll be fine," Richard assured her. "It takes time and mana to neutralise the damage. With your Essence, however, Lea should be right in ten minutes or so. The question is, are you alright?"
"I am fine now." Gwen hesitated. "Got hit by Mind Magic, I think."
"One of ours?" Petra's brow furrowed. "That's impossible unless one of the Adventurers hides their talent. The Shard's dossiers said nothing."
"Lass." Hanmoul's voice burst through a glowing Glyph by her ear. "Am so sorry…"
"Not now, Hanmoul," Gwen snapped at the Dwarf, genuinely upset and annoyed that they had put in all this effort, only to be met with inexplicable hostility. She knew of course that Hanmoul was not to blame, and from the looks of it, Hilda may be a victim as well. But if and when she cracked that Citadel, and if she were to find anything but dazed and worried Human Mages, there would be hell to pay.
"Naw, Lass, yer have to listen—"
"Hanmoul!" She growled at her companion. "I don't care about your apology. I trust you and need you to support me in whatever the hell is going to happen next. We're going to breach that damn Citadel, and I WILL see our Mages SAFE and SOUND, and maybe Hilda if we can help it! So stop pussyfooting and tell me how to bust that thing open—!"
"LASS!" The Iron Guard's Commandrumm, to her surprise, raised his voice as well. "I ain't APOLOGISING, yer git! Yer've got incoming! My Iron Guards have reported contact in the tunnels! The bleeding Aberrants are flooding back in full force!"
"... Fuck me, are you serious?" Gwen could hardly hear her voice over the bellowing Spellswords and the moaning Golem suits battling a tsunami of howling, yipping, yammering dogs pulling apart anything that could be targeted.
Was this why Bronzehorn engaged them so far out from the Citadel? She wondered. Was it this Thalmar's intent that they would be caught between the hammer and anvil that was the Obsidian Caverns and the incoming Beast Wave of Aberrants?
It made sense— but why would the Aberrants attack so opportunistically? Could the Balefire predict the future?
"Dead serious, Lass—" Hanmoul' vox could barely be heard over the sound of warnings exploding across his instrument cluster. "My men held back every Crawler they could, but these gobblers are suicidal! They're pouring in by the kettle load! I've seen this before, Gwen—"
"Like when we found you?"
"Nay." The Commandrumm's tone grew grim. "There's one of them intellects! I reckon there's one controlling the horde!"