As a young woman who had vicariously experienced the intense chest-thumping of "Desert Storm I" and "Desert Storm II — The Search for WMDs", Gwen, like most first-world Post 9-11 folk, had acquired a broadspectrum antibody encapsulated under a single, euphemistic nomenclature:
In Shenyang, she actively participated in "Threat Neutralisation" by conveniently ignoring that thousands of NoMs still served the Necromancers in their mundane capacities. For that episode, she had adopted a total war mentality, one that in her world, the "Coalition of the Willing" had guiltily accepted as the price of global hegemony.
For her present dilemma, she had no analogies, no parallels, no alter-world experience to rationalise. This time, there were no complications. As a soldier, she would pit ability against circumstance and roll with the consequence.
In one hand, she materialised the Core of a Titan Boa, then spoke the invocations and paid the life-price for Reactive Bone Shield. Then, crushing a phial of Essence-rich lifeblood, she roused her Lesser Sanguine Mantle. The defence spells left her mana at just over half-tank, with enough Essence left to work some serious magic.
"Cali! Ariel!" Gwen positioned her Familiars as her mind skimmed through strategies and possibilities in the lull before joining the grand melee. "This is going to hurt, Pat. Give me the strongest dose."
"On it." Petra did not need Spellcubes for the spell she now called to her lips. "Heroism!"
A halo of glimmering, golden Enchantment appeared and disappeared around Gwen's forehead. Gwen allowed the glamour to suffuse her body, driving away fear, doubt, fatigue and woe, filling her with supernatural and double-edged confidence.
Calling on the dark things that lurked in the Void, she envisioned in her mind a scene of Caliban first laying low, then suddenly emerging mid-battle to slurping up the Calamari Dwarves among them.
Gwen took a deep breath.
In an instant, she raced past Hanmoul, for although her ally had a keen desire to serve as fodder for mind-powder, it didn't mean she would take the Commandrumm up on his offer. In the aftermath, she needed Hanmoul alive and well in the event of their victory, for the Dwarf was the lynchpin securing London's stake in the Murk. That and she possessed no desire to see a good mate brained by squids.
The battalion of multi-coloured hounds closed in, heedless of the mana rapidly gathering at the fallen wall's misshapen chokepoints.
A twin set of Lava Bombs ripped out nearby, eviscerating the frontal wedge of the formation breaking over the slag heap, creating more "Collateral Damage".
Buoyed by Heroism, Gwen swallowed the sourness rapidly rising from the back of her throat and focused her Detect Magic. She located the Balefire instantly, for the destruction of the wall had also disrupted the obfuscation Glyphs built into the Citadel's defence.
Good. Her overtly rational mind chimed. Now Gracie and Petra could track the octopuses hidden in the crags.
"Ariel!" She began the assault by testing the Balefire. "Ball Lightning!"
A dozen spheres of white-hot electricity zig-zagged through the air, several struck the stonework. The rest slid past the grated battlements to strike at the Golem, erupting as electrified balls of whipping plasma.
Her intended purpose was to distract Thalmar and draw his fire.
Unfortunately, the cruel glowing orbs behind the roughly hewn gorget paid no heed. With a burst of smouldering magma, red light shot from the gaps between its plating as defensive runes burst into action, nullifying Gwen's Elemental Lightning.
Thalmar raised an enormous, rune-powered gauntlet.
The air around her grew suddenly thick.
This time, Gwen suppressed the Essence injected into Ariel to avoid another catastrophic episode of "Collateral Damage". At once, the grated wall designed to afford Dwarven defenders spell-cover crumbled, cracking and exploding as her sonic spell tolled.
The runic armour of the Balefire rippled; a few fizzed and winked, but other than the loss of a few lumens, the monstrous Golem remained unimpeded.
Near the Human Mages standing like dumb cattle, the courtyard exploded once more, annihilating dogs and perishing the helpless. Gwen grunted as the surviving Void Hounds freely made use of her vital forces.
"Richard!" she howled into the Message Device, all sympathy temporarily suppressed by Petra's stone-hearted sorcery.
"On it!" her cousin replied. "Ser Hanmoul, be prepared to receive the hostages!"
"Got it, lad!" the Dwarf relented.
Now well within Spellsword range from the Citadel, the swiftest of her Hounds had picked up the Mages by their clothes and were frantically dragging them out of the crumbling Citadel. According to the Shard's report, there were in total sixty-odd Mages forming twelve parties of various tiers; presently, at least a dozen had perished by her count.
The Balefire's internal combustion mechanism roared.
With no diatribe and no warning, only the sound of its mana engine rumbling over a symphony of ultraviolence, the Dwarven "Terminator" strode past the debris as a Demi-God of wanton destruction, fuming and steaming, hissing with sadism.
This time, it raised both roughly wrought gauntlets. The damned thing was baiting them.
"Lightning Bolt!" Gwen succeeded only in melting the silica in the slag. "Fuck! DICK!"
"Tidal Flood!" At her cousin's command, a portion of the conflagrating mana turned to mist. The newly arrived Lea manifested at once, flooding the courtyard with motes of Elemental Water. The wasteful method vastly increased a caster's Affinity within its area of effect but expended mana like mad.
"Vold Bolt!" She flung a dab of tenebrous ink toward the Balefire, hoping to eat away the runic wards covering the Golem's plated exterior.
When the final syllable left her lips, Gwen's spine supernaturally tingled.
Gwen cursed. She wasn't surprised at the trap, only that all five of them working in tandem couldn't disrupt the Balefire's ploy.
A mind-stunning wave of psychic energy pounded her head, failing to shut down her senses but succeeding in anaesthetising her spellcasting.
Twin explosions rang out, maximised and empowered.
Her preemptive Shield turned white, then shattered as the second blast hit, transferring its heat and kinetic energy directly onto her Shen-teī armour.
Without the conscious need for active deployment, her "Lesser" Sanguine Mantle manifested.
Considering its limited number of reactive "charges", she withheld her Bone Shield.
Against the anticipated lethality of something like a Lava Bomb, her Sanguine Mantle's extreme versatility should provide ample protection.
THWACK! She landed flatly against the hard granite, then rolled her body to disperse the momentum, confident that the mantle would absorb any scrapes and breakages. Against her body, she felt the heat lick the silicone-like skin of the Vampiric Abjuration. Perhaps against another enemy, she could have made use of their lifeblood, or if she were cruel and without conscience, that of the hostages— but that was a dilemma for another time.
She tumbled for a dozen meters with the explosion ringing in her ears, and the force of the blow disorientating her bearings. Thankfully, nothing broke, and she had driven the first mental assault through force of will.
A third and likely a fourth Lava Bomb gathered strength close to her final landing spot.
"Dimension Door!" She teleported closer to the Balefire even as she willed Caliban to hurry the fuck up by burning vitality. She didn't mind being bait— but her suffering had to be worthwhile. "Golos! Get ready!"
Nearer the ceiling, the Wyvern had withheld itself until one of the squid-heads showed. Unfortunately, now that the Mon Calamari could use Hold Person on her without LOS, she had to change her plans.
On a more disturbing note, her Void bolt had about as much effect on the Earthen Elemental as her spectacularly futile lightning assault. The Balefire's defences, she noted woefully, followed the usual Dwarven planning principles of being over-engineered and underreported.
A dozen potential spells flashed through her head, including consigning the Balefire into a maximised Void Maelstrom, which was impossible in a place so inundated with Elemental Earth. It was too bad that the construct showed no sign of vitality whatsoever, else she would have dropped two Enervating Orbs directly on top of each other to greet the pilot.
"Gwen!" Petra's warning blossomed beside her and her teammates' ears. "Another MIND-spike, directed at you!"
"Dimension Door!" Gwen teleported a few meters overhead of the Golem, hoping to put herself in its blind spot.
The Balefire followed her mana signature without trouble, its spell-armed gauntlets tracking her by pivoting its waist almost one-eighty, indicating the presence of articulate mechanisms instead of a spine.
Urging Caliban to once more hurry, Gwen emptied her head of stray thoughts, flooded her conduits with Essence, then turned to a tranquil memory of shoe shopping with Elvia in the Strand. While in such a meditative state, her active defensive would drop to nil, but she would become hyper-resistive against Enchantment and Illusion.
"Usurp!" Jean-Paul's notification rang out on their communal channel.
To her horror, the Lava Bombs did not manifest beside her, resulting in Jean-Paul's spell-stealing mote of mana-eating Void winking out of existence. As if to mock Gwen's foolishness and her self-sacrifice, the eruptions materialised beside the hapless adventurers.
Gwen would have preferred to take the hit herself.
"GOT EM!" Richard was ready to catch the redirected magma, resulting in twin, localised explosions of steam as he turned the force upwards in an arc, raining scalding water over the milling hostages. Observing the lethal rainbow, Gwen could only hope that Petra may yet save those who did not instantly die.
Then the squids struck with their spell-jamming.
The sensation was akin to having tentacles probe her frontal lobe, seeking a metaphysical path past her mental guard through repeated molestation. Luckily, her training with Petra taught her that Mind Magic isn't a School of Magic one could abuse to ceaseless assault a victim. Each failed attempt to subverting the target's will resulted in rapidly diminishing returns, which was why Mind Mages strongly emphasised longterm subversion over brute force.
Her anguish did not last long. Golos had been sniffing about for the "Dark Intellects", and once the Calamari-kin went full-throttle on their will-altering abilities, the Wyvern struck.
As a thundering cannonball, the Scion of the Yinglong dived from the cavern's cathedral ceiling toward the dozens of halls and rooms carved into the granite bluffs. In a burst of hysterical electricity, the Wyvern punched through the meter-thick partitions as though tearing through wallpaper, whipping its tail in a line so that six of the chambers became instantly pulverised.
"ROAAR!" To secure its kills, her big bad Wyvern huffed into the passages, mixing hot breath with living lightning, lighting up the entirety of the second floor so that a disco of death-dealing plasma blew out from the opposite chambers.
Before the Wyvern could finish, a second, larger explosion ten-times in size rang out. One of the rooms must have held the mana batteries for the Excavators and the Fabricators, for blue-green fire suddenly poured from the entire floor.
"SKAAARRRK!" Following the Wyvern's enraged assault, Klad clad bodies tumbled from the upper chambers, their suits aflame with combusting mana.
Against Gwen's expectation, the Balefire Golem completely ignored the burning squid-heads. Perhaps misunderstanding that removing her from combat would unsummon the monstrous lizard, she had become its only priority.
Still stunned, her armour grew unbearably warm.
Below, the Balefire's scorching Glyphs glowed white-hot as the inscribed Creature Core within its clockwork body burned with vengeful violence.
Jean-Paul attempted to catch the gathering mana once more, manifesting the spell directly below her. This time, his Void mote grew from the size of a pea to that of a burgeoning balloon of unstable ink within the span of a second, then to the Void Mage's vexation, his bubble burst.
"Crystalline Wall!" Petra, their jack-of-all Schools Controller, was ready with a shielded, mid-air semi-dome.
It was impeccable teamwork, one that would have saved her no end of grief were they not pitted against the ultimate defence weapon of a major Demi-human military force.
To her teammate's chagrin, a third and fourth Lava Bomb erupted above the immobile Void Sorceress, sending her careening into the very barrier her cousin had made.
Gwen acquired an intimate understanding of inertia as her Bone Armour manifested, transforming into an enormous ribcage resembling its material component sourced from Amazonia. Initially, she had desired stronger Cores, but Maxwell had informed her that the purpose of Reactive Bone Shield lied in its ability to absorb punishment and be destroyed in the process; the trick was to find a Core in the Goldilocks zone of strength and brittleness. Now, she put that theory to test.
All around her, the rapidly expanding collars of bone snapped and broke, giving time for the Sanguine Mantle to turn the exterior of her body red with carnage so that she appeared almost flayed. As the spell struck, competing forces that would have rippled out her armour and transferred from overloaded shock-absorbers to her organs instead rippled out, exploding from her lithe form in gobs of gore.
The Crystalline Wall shattered as the girl inside its semi-dome splattered, transforming the entirety of its exterior the hue of wine with a wet crunch of bone. To friend and foe below, the scene resembled one of complete, total obliteration.
Even knowing that Ariel's continued existence meant that their sorceress survived and that her Contingency Ring hadn't triggered, the spectacle was enough to drive her teammates wild.
"VICTORY!" Thalmar proclaimed, the Golem's battle cry bellowing out as an orange pulse of violent mana from its glowing maw. "NOW, THOU ART FOOD FOR MURK WORMS!"
"INSOLENCE!" Golos' response was to match the Golem's volume before descending onto the Balefire with tooth and claw, ignoring the chained-explosions rocking its electrified hide.
While Golem and Wyvern tussled, Hanmoul received the still-breathing bodies of the limp Mages rescued by Morden's Hounds. The Commandrumm's eyes were twin bloodshot orbs, but even so, the veteran Iron Guard understood the duty his "mate" had given him.
"Take the Humans and go," he commanded his entourage. "Grimgal, get ready for the next batch!"
"Aye Commandrumm." Grimgal's eyes remained locked on the bloody mass of gory crystal now raining across the spell-torn granite. "Hanmoul— is Gwen..."
“SHAAAA! SHAA—SHAA! SHAAAAA—!" Grimgal's answer came in the form of Caliban exploding forth from under the Citadel, finally having tunnelled through while the Balefire and the Murk Divers were distracted by their self-proclaimed victory.
Caliban slammed into the Citadel's far wall with its body, crumbling the barracks and the defence structures with the fatalistic momentum of a glacier. Once it kissed the granite, the worm turned its enormous body in a death-roll, turning deep into the ruined defences like a colossal drill.
"Gracie!" Petra called out, her voice hoarse from the anxiety of observing their Aberrant baiting cousin's suicide-charge. Unlike Gwen, she had not armed herself with fear-dispending Heroism. "Have you found them?"
"Got them!" the Illusionist replied, completing the weaving of her most offensive Illusion spell, Phantasmal Force.
Directly below Caliban's expanding maw, in a buried chamber only Petra's boxed Scry could reach, psychic emanations from Gracie manifested as ten-thousand Void Spiders hungry for Dwarf flesh.
CRASH! Caliban's bullet-shaped head penetrated through the ceiling, crushing in-ward the stoneworks. When it opened its faceless maw, a flood of Void-tinged digestive juices, together with writing tentacles hidden in the tenebrous goo, tore into the hidden chambers as sticky tongues of an ant-eaters fishing for larvae.
Meanwhile, not far from the Void Wyrm, Golos had wrapped itself around the Golem with its gory body, bleeding mauve blood onto its hissing runic plating. The drake knew he could not destroy this creation of the Dwarves' desperation, but he understood the importance of buying its mistress time. The combat itself was primal, for the Golem was bodily slamming the Wyvern against the wall and the floor, its pinching power gauntlet tearing at scale and sinew, muscle and bone in a bid to disable the adult pseudo-Mythic.
"CAREFUL! MORE Mind Magic!" Petra's warning rang out once more as her detection spell pinged.
This time, the victim was Richard, though his body grew rigid for only a second while he held his ground against the alien force seeking to seize his cerebral cortex.
"Cali! Left chamber, bottom!" Gracie steered the monstrous worm while throwing out yet more Void Illusions.
Caliban reared upward, then dug down another storey into the floor. When it emerged, two of its tentacles were dragging from Citadel's depth a twin set of Dwarves dressed in rubbery Klads. Without hesitation, its preys entered its gullet while the other dozen of its tendrils continued to fossick and ferret the Citadel's interior for more of their kind.
A second later, Richard' felt the assault on his mind abruptly cease. Together with his returning consciousness, he noted that the Mages milling about the courtyard were waking up as well.
"Whoa-WHOA! WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?" A few of the Mages newly shaken out of their stupor stared open-mouthed at the titanic battle above, in front, and beside them.
"Where are we? What? WHAT?"
"HAVE THE ABERRANTS BROKEN THROUGH?"
"Where have the Dwarves gone?"
"Calm Emotion!" Petra knew there was no time to waste. Without hesitation, she gave "Command" to "RUN FOR THE SWIFTSTRIDERS, NOW!"
"SHAA! SHAA!" Caliban's body undulated as it pushed obscenely into the cleft its head had earlier dug. A torrent of semi-clear gunk consisting of Void matter dissolved each barrier as it sought out openings that survived its assault.
"CHRIST ABOVE—!" More Mages awakened from their stupor, only to fall and stumble, tripping over debris and the smouldering bodies of their deceased companions.
"FLEE!" Petra's "Command" burst from among the dazed and confused Mages even now scrambling for cover. "FLEE AS SWIFT AS YOU CAN!"
Gwen hoped to hell that the crumple zone and airbags provided by Sanguine Mantle and Bone Shield was enough to prevent the newtons from rending her nerves and sinews moot.
Using herself as bait was a calculated risk, for she possessed Essence and a superhuman constitution; an elastic, body-morphic second-skin that dulled all damage; and she had deployed a state of the art crumple-cushion.
In hindsight, she was sure that lacking any of one of the three, she would be back in London and en route to the ER at Elvia's hospital.
However, having successfully met each of the stringent conditions above, what she suffered was the debilitating, screen-fracturing whiplash endured by a new-release iPhone dropped from the twelfth storey to garner Youtube views. The result of her experiment was that while somethings broke, enough bits remained stuck together so she could be turned back on.
Whatever the case, her brain now rebooted sans interference from Mind Magic, with the adrenaline and the Heroism blissfully raising her pain threshold beyond human means.
Picking herself up from the broken crystalline shell, her Reactive Bone Armour rapidly regenerated, once more tapping into the Creature Core to encase her surroundings in a cage of levitating bone. Over and beneath her battered Shenteī armour, the Sanguine Mantle settled against her skin, forming a wine-coloured film that clung to every nook and cranny of her beaten body.
"Shaa!" In her mind, Caliban reported that it was hunting down the last vestige of Aberrant vitality within the Citadel and that in a separate chamber, it could detect the scent of Hilda and probably Ebren.
With one hand, she wiped the blood from her nose and her lips, marvelling at the way her armour wasted not a single drop as her bodily fluids became re-absorbed by her second skin.
The Mages were free now, she was glad to see, and those that could flee made for the hills, where Hanmoul and his men ferried them further away from the battlefield and offered triage to those that needed it.
Gwen cleared her throat of iron-tasting fluids.
Above, Golos fought a losing battle against the Magma Golem, for the monsters' elements were poorly matched. Were it not for the Yinglong's superior Essence; the Wyvern would have been torn limb from limb as soon as the two engaged.
Earlier, she couldn't break the Balefire with Lightning.
After that, it was unfazed by her Void as well.
Could Caliban swallow the thing?
Would the thing allow itself to be swallowed by Caliban? Probably not. If it could tear through her double-shield, her mantle and her bone barrier with sheer firepower, then it could just as easily blow a hole through Cali's gullet.
Her Wyvern cried out as it savaged the Golem. She could sense through her Empathic Link that her drake's confidence was rapidly waning.
She turned to check on her team members.
Richard aided the evacuation of the Mages, hollering at Lea while commanding two fronts. Jean-Paul's face was the colour of paste, continued to Usurp the Magma Bombs that sought to slay the fleeing Humans. Petra did her best to calm the Mages and provide Abjuration support for Jean-Paul. And Gracie had a Scry window on full display while throwing Illusory horrors in Caliban's general direction.
Gracie! An unorthodox scheme ignited in her mind, one so absurd and ridiculous she just knew it had to work.
"Gogo, hold it down!" she shouted at her Wyvern. "I am coming! Buck! Astro! Go and help!"
The surviving dogs, now leaving the hostages to their own devices, came on as a revolving swarm of bodies yipping, yelling and yapping at the Golem's heels, doing everything they could to pick the thing apart.
"ART THOU NOT BROKEN?" The Balefire, if it could at all show emotion, was showing it now. Its face, which Gwen was sure was an immovable mask, contorted into a terrifying shape as it observed her bloody armour and her stark-bone barrier. "CALAMITOUS DEFILER! VADAM FIEND!"
"No hypocrisy there," Gwen muttered the invocation to another Dimension Door. A split-second later, she reappeared behind the Golem.
The Balefire spun on its hinges, tossing dogs like a salad spinner and making Golos groan.
Golos tightened its grip, stretching itself so far that gouts of blood spluttered from its wounds, spraying Gwen with gore. Instantly, her mantle absorbed the unexpected bounty.
As for Gwen, the forbidden invocation was already halfway on her lips and nearing completion. It was an old and complex algorithm, but one she had meticulously practised so that risk to Gracie could be minimalised.
This time, she took no such care. Arming her spell for maximum disruption and absolute volatility, Gwen applied the meta-magic for maximal effect, pushing in both Essence and mana until she grew as pale as Umzokwe.
Before the Golem's gears could overpower Golos, she moved the spell's collected necrotic energies to her fingertips, then touched the Void-tinged mana to the Golem's lower back, where presumably its Creature Core channelled its near-infinite energies.
From her fingers, she sensed the invocation's hunger disseminate and spread, seeking a source of Essence to usurp.
If her party had been in the vicinity of an Elven Spirit-Mage, the observer would have stared slack-jawed at the rush of violent energies from her Astral Body forming into a hungry vortex. Ahead of the sorceress' slavering, lip-smacking maelstrom, a spark of fluctuating Essence erupted, forcibly tearing into the inviolable silhouette of the Engineseer's tempered soul of dark steel, instigating a violent blowout of Elemental Magma into the Astral Plane.
However, as no such rare figures were present, it would appear as though she had merely slapped the Balefire Golem on the belly, resulting in a playful "Clang!"
The Golem staggered; suddenly unsure of its footing.
The combatants held their breath, unsure of what Gwen intended or what should happen next.
"THOU—" The light of Thalmar's life dimmed before he even finished.
As for Gwen, a white-hot stab of energy, unlike anything she had ever experienced flowed as molten metal into her Astral Body.
"ARRRRRRRRGGH—" A long and drawn-out scream erupted from her throat, captivating her companions with her soulful, exquisite agony.
A din with a decibel that no sound could capture erupted over and over again in Gwen's head like the tolling of a belfry where the bells were her cerebellum. She felt as though the grey fat of her brain had become the gory body of Caesar betrayed, while the Dwarf's Essence was a riotous Roman mob bawling for blood in gibbering Latin!
YE GODS! LET IT OUT!
Like buzzing Yellow Jackets hammering at a windowpane, morbid thoughts transposed from Thalmar erupted at the forefront of her mind demanded blissful oblivion, joyous at the prospect of caking the walls so its flaming fever could end.
FUCK OFF! Came a second cry, her voice, more clarified than the first, and with it came Almudj's restorative Essence, overwhelming and powerful, washing over the white-hot fire with the force of a noontide, soothing her soul, smothering everything with the cerulean blue waters of Lake Eyre.
"Huff— Huff— Huff—" She lamented possessing only one pair of lungs.
Gwen felt her soul shunt back into her body, forcing her to stagger and fall onto her buttocks. In the ensuing turmoil of her mind, every mote of active sorcery had been erased, including her dogs. If Caliban and Ariel were not Spirits, they too would have perished.
"CALAMITY!" Golos unfurled itself from the inert Golem, tearing away strings of congealed blood-slick with a stench of burnt flesh and sulphur. "Foolish female!"
"Shaa! SHAA!" Caliban withdrew from the wall and headed her way.
"EE! EE!" Ariel landed as well to lick its unsteady Master.
"I am okay." Gwen ventilated, still trying to catch her breath as the Bone Armour dissolved and her Sanguine Mantle slid from her skin. Her body felt unsteady; her mind was a box of bees. Her over-tensed muscles felt like wet noodles hung loosely over the frame of a bruised skeleton. "How's the Balefire?"
"I think it… turned off?" An instantly translocated Richard slapped the limp iron figure, slipping an arm below her waist and over her shoulder. "What the hell did you do?"
"Tapped out its soul," Gwen said. "Then refused to give it a place to go. Help me up."
Richard pulled her up by taking her hand, but even so, her body wouldn't respond. The damage from earlier, coupled with her Astral disjunction was taking its toll.
"Did you break a bone?" Petra arrived the next instant with Gracie. "Jesus, Gwennie, you look like hell."
"I don't think that's how you're supposed to use Essence Tap." Gracie checked her Scrying pool even as she strode over the blood and brittle bone surrounding their leader. "I don't sense any more hostiles, thank the Nazarene."
"It's an Astral Body thing." Gwen limply waved a hand. "Cali?"
"Shaa!" Caliban wiggled, affirming Gracie's conjecture, then burped.
"Cali ate the Calamari Dwarves," Gracie concurred. "We made a great team, Cali."
"You too, Ariel."
"Gwen, are you alright?" Jean-Paul arrived via a Dimension-Door.
"I am alive. How're our Mages?" Gwen resolved herself to be propped up between Richard and Ariel, aided by Jean-Paul. "How many—"
"Thirty-seven," Jean-Paul reported at once. "That's the ones we saved. About six are in critical condition. We need to get them transported back to civilisation right away. Hanmoul's already sent them for the Citadel."
"W-what about—" Gwen paused. Her bodily control was returning now, and she could stand weakly on her own. "—Hilda and Ebren?"
"They and the other prisoners are down below." Gracie continued to manipulate the Scry now that she stood directly above the lower chambers. "I take it the Calamari had plans."
"I'll go find em." Petra nodded to Gracie. "Gwen, you stay here and rest. Gracie?"
"Coming!" Gracie slapped her heavily Enchanted armour. "We'll need healing spells. Some of them are severely weakened."
While her cousin and her ward went to find the VIPs in their escort quest, Gwen leaned back to study the Balefire Golem's husk with the "Soul" dispersed. Beside her, her Wyvern did its best to pick out bits of crushed scales so it could expedite its natural healing.
Was Thalmar dead and Gone?
Was the Balefire still active or alive?
Out of curiosity, she placed her hand on the Golem's armour.
The suit dematerialised into her Storage Ring.
"LASSIE— DONNAE DO THAT!"
The newly arrived Hanmoul popped his cockpit, revealing a face full of concern over her inadvertent commitment to an international, inter-species war crime.
"… Sorry, I was just curious to see if the Balefire was alive or otherwise." She quickly released the Balefire's body back into the Commandrumm's custody. Taking the Balefire would have made many people in Cambridge very happy, but the same act would likely start an underground world war.
At her confession, the Dwarf exhaled pure relief, lowering his raised beard as the flush of shame and outrage bled from his face. "Don't yer test our alliance like that, Lassie. Yer making trouble fer us all, yer is."
"It's an accident," Gwen simpered with a cringe-worthy expression of woe. "Truly."
"I can't believe yer defeated a Balefire." Hanmoul shook his head, shook his head again, then resolved to continue shaking. "I think we'd best keep this between us. I'll tell the lads to swear on their Ancestors as well."
"Is that a bad thing?" Gwen gulped.
"Balefire Guardians are Deepholm's last defence." The Commandrumm looked as though someone had told him Santa was a fat Dwarf in a red suit. "By Bürumm-Dal's hammer-axe, a Soulforged Golem should be indomitable! That's why an Engineseer's flesh and blood must be paid as a price. If one can be defeated like that..."
"Hanmoul, I almost ignited my soul." Gwen touched a hand to her throbbing head. "There isn't going to be a second time."
"Nae, Lass, there isn't. Else all of Deepholm will be after yer skull as a trophy." Hamel placed his hand on the husk of Thalmar's former body. His Storage Ring glowed, then as with Gwen, the Balefire was gone. "Am going ter dismantle and melt this Vadam slag. Thalmar fled into the Murk, never to return, yer ken?"
"Right." Gwen flexed her fingers, sensing that some of her sensations were returning.
Ding! Petra's Message blossomed beside her cheek.
"Gwen, we found Ebren and Hilda. The Deepdowner's fine, but her partner's in bad shape. I am going to administer healing and restoration. One thing though— They want to retrieve and wear their Klads. Your orders?"
"Are they…" Gwen thought of the Mon Calamari.
A nasty part of her still suspected whether Hilda and Ebren were complete victims. The better part of her though, informed her that making Hilda and Ebren appear in the light in front of Humans without their Klads would be the equivalent of engendering a death grudge.
"Let them get dressed," Gwen said, wondering if she should get Petra to renew her Heroism before the unmitigated pain returned.
"What now?" Richard spoke beside her. "Are we busting it back to the Red Citadel to kick Deepdowners and rip off their face masks?"
"Sure." Gwen laid her head on her cousin's shoulders. "But for now, I need a break and a kit-kat."