Metaworld Chronicles

by

Wutosama

Chapter 406 - Where the Shadows Burn Bright

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A note from Wutosama

 

Upon the horizon, the Fire Sea glimmered, refracting across the blue dark, transforming the Caspian's southern shores from cerulean to turquoise.

Gwen now knew why the Meister was utterly confident they could cross the Caspian by night. Where she had imagined zooming through a pitch-black, fingerless murk, aided only by the Omni-Orb, the surreal reality was that they would soon be flying through an eternal sunset.

According to Bekker, an Elemental encounter was inevitable. It wasn't a question of if, but when, and for that, Gwen asked if it was possible to first bring out her Familiars or perhaps Golos.

"If you open a Planar Portal to the Quasi-Lightning here, you're going to draw every Elemental being, wild or otherwise, from Baku to Amol!" Taylor spluttered at her request. "Just stay behind us. If it's safe to test your mettle, we'll let you know."

Gwen concurred.

From Astrakhan to Aktau was two hundred kilometres as the crow flew. With the sunburst from the Fire Sea and the increasingly volatile weather, even an experience navigator couldn't say they would travel in a straight line.

"Use the Omni-Orb," Meister Bekker gave the command, and Gwen obeyed without delay, producing her wondrous object for all to see.

A few of the Mages whistled.

"Incredible!" Magister Taylor was all kinds of impressed. "You know, they say the Dragons of Asia use a completely original form of Divination based on ley-lines called Fengshui. They're particularly good at dousing paths to natural resources, like water and minerals. Mayhap this is one of those objects?"

"This one kind of just goes… where it thinks where I ought to go," Gwen explained. "I have no idea how it works, but I get there."

"No doubt." Taylor ran a quick diagnostic Divination on her Orb.

"I don't think that's a good idea, Sir," Gwen offered a polite warning.

"Taylor, unless you want to pay a personal visit to the Dragon that gave her that thing..." Bekker snorted at the Diviner from the Shard. "You should also know that her Wyvern, the tyrannical Golos, is the brother to the owner of the Orb, so good luck."

"But of course," the Magister was quick to apologise. "I did not mean to offend. Forgive my academic interest."

Gwen was sure that the man was lying through his teeth, though falsehoods from a noble countenance were easier to swallow. Fighting the urge to believe the smiling dandy, Gwen reminded herself that Taylor was a diplomat and that deception was his bread and butter.

"Don't get distracted—" Bekker rallied the crew as they took into the air. "Abjurers, you have priority access to Circle Scry. If we run into something, Purge it, else we will withdraw northward. Hughes and Kott will be our rear guard."

"Yes, Ma'am." The three Abjurers gave their affirmations, as did Angela Hughes, their Illusionist.

It took the party ten minutes to clear the rest of the frigid, frozen forest, after which the open sea burst upon them as a limitless, lightless horizon to the east and a marigold aurora to the south and south-west.

The eeriest thing, Gwen noted, wasn't so much the light and dark— but that she couldn't see a single star as a result of the light pollution and heat haze from the south.

Now in the Black Zone proper, the party kept a semblance of Divination silence, with only Taylor giving commentary. By the Diviner's estimate, the journey should take around an hour and a half before the abandoned Sea Fort at Shevchenko came into view. Should the landmark present itself, it would indicate that they were going in the right direction.

Should they fail to see Kazakhstan's headlands, then it would be safe to assume that an Air Djinn or Water Marid had managed to waylay their path, that or Gwen's Omni-Orb wasn't all it cracked up to be.

"Look below." After an hour, Magister Taylor decided to point out some interesting sights for the two novices-Magisters in training.

Gwen's gaze dipped below, catching sight of an enormous shape moving through the dimly lit waters. From the looks of it, the colossal thing was at least the size of a frigate.

"A whale?" Gwen's mouth fell half-open. "Here? In an inland sea?"

"Impressive, isn't it? It's a Titan Class Bone-spined Sturgeon," the Magister's tone shared her awe. "Long said to be extinct. It's amazing what's coming back now that the Planar fabric's torn. More than likely, the Marids are responsible for such a thing. Within their coral palaces, they keep vast aqua-farms of Elemental monstrosities for sport and sustenance."

"Incredible," Gwen marvelled.

Momentarily, a portion of the Sturgeon ascended, breaking the surface with ridge after ridge of protruding soft-shelled carapace.

"There are some in the Militant Faction who say the return of Titans such as these to the Prime Material is a good thing," Taylor remarked after what seemed like a whole minute when the final segment of the fish disappeared. "I, for one, have my doubts. Titan-Class Cores are welcome and all, but the proviso is that someone has to hunt them down and de-Core these things before they grow hungry enough to visit one of our cities. Take the Caspian, for example. Even if we manage to transmute a deep-sea port into existence, who would dare fish in waters such as these? It would take a supertanker to dissuade such a monster from coming near the fleet. Likewise, left un-hunted, an overt density of these Magical Creatures would only destabilise the fabric of the Prime Material."

Despite having captured a supertanker in Singapore, Gwen felt she had nothing of substance to add to the Magister's musing and so said nothing.

"Bloody Militant meddlers—" Their Illusionist, the woman who had scalded Taylor in London, spoke up. "Who told you this?"

"Oh, the usual suspects. You know, our friends from Devonshire."

"Of House Exeter? You're in rare company these days, Frank."

"It's an occupational hazard, Angie, though you certainly didn't hear anything from me. Should anyone ask, I shall call you a witch," Taylor spoke in mirth. "What's your interest? Does the Fifth Cabal want the time and place, name and associations? I am happy to entertain your interrogation in private."

"You wish, Frank."

"I mean, I didn't see anything untoward. It's not a crime to complain about state policy." Taylor's tone grew mischievous. "At least to my knowledge, voicing one's opinion in public isn't yet sedition. There was a respectable amount of liqueur involved, I'll have you know, and a great deal of tobacco."

"I am sure there was." The voice of Angela echoed through the Divination channel. "You know, I am curious. Regarding our present purpose, you didn't take a bribe from the Militants, did you, Frank? You should know better…"

"Of course I did!" To Gwen's surprise, their Diviner burst into laughter. "Naturally, I passed it forward to my superiors. Not taking it would be suspicious and unnatural. We're not the Royal Griffin Guards, you know?"

A few chuckles escaped the rest of the party. Gwen laughed out loud as well.

"Which Faction are you? Magus Song?" The party's probable Fifth Cabal observer suddenly enquired of her political standings.

"Er…" Gwen wasn't sure she wanted to answer that question.

"She's a bit young to be involved in Faction politics, no?" Taylor said. "Come on, Angie, that's a question you shouldn't ask lightly."

"What's there to fear? You forget who her progenitor is—" One of the Evokers butted in.

"What, the Lord Ravenport thing?" Another voice spoke up. "I thought that's a crock of bull?"

"Well, Magus Song?"

"Angela, leave her alone." Magister Taylor, who appeared to stand firmly in Gwen's camp, interrupted the chorus of competing banter. "That's her business and none of yours."

Taylor's undiplomatic decorum appeared to annoy the Illusionist. From their banter, Gwen could tell the two had history, which also informed her a little of Taylor's deference for herself. Gwen wondered if she should speak up but chose the better option of focusing on her Omni-orb. After ten more minutes, she noted the appearance of a vague silhouette on the horizon.

Once she was entirely sure of what she'd seen, Gwen made her discovery known. "Land-HO!"

"Truly?" Taylor's voice returned a moment later. "I can't see anything in this light. Lord, what I'd give for a Divi-Tower on that headland."

"Neither can I," Major Kott affirmed their Diviner's observation. "Although Gwen's physiology is more peculiar than ours. What are you seeing?"

Gwen channelled both Essence and mana to her eyes. "... Tall cliffs, a peninsular of sorts, followed by a flat expanse that stretches into the horizon. There are buildings beside the cliffs, and what look like ruins of a town? Or a base."

"Sounds like Bautino," the Magister asserted her verdict. "Do you see an abandoned port? Look for round things, like grain silos and warehouses. There should be what's left of an industrial pier as well."

"I see it." Gwen breathed out a sigh of relief. "Yes, there are two tanker-piers still standing."

"Good eyes." Taylor sounded impressed. "Any enemies?"

Gwen squinted. "I see silhouettes moving about, a lot of them. My, they're awful diminutive, and yes, there's a lot of them."

"Diminutive? I see the reports were right," the Diviner said. "Meister? Your recommendations?"

"Prepare for combat." Magister Bekker slowed the Flights to a crawl. "Abjurers, Resist Disease! Defence against Projectiles."

Of the three Abjurers, Nils Kott was the combat specialist and so provided Mage Armour for all. Pietersen, Bekker's ordained Abjurer, renewed Elemental Resistance while the Cleric, Sarah Nurse, Blessed then fortified the party with Resist Disease.

"INCOMING!" Magister' Taylor's voice cut through the chatter. "Eleven O Clock! Three Air Elementals, one greater standing by, two mediums coming toward us."

Gwen's pupils refocused in the low-light. From afar where the fort once stood, she could see roughly humanoid shapes approaching from atop the ruins toward them.

"Gwen, Jean-Paul, standby for engagement." Bekker gave the command. “Schoeman, Jonke, take lead. Taylor, cover our flanks."

"Yes, Meister!" The men gave their affirmations, as did Gwen and Jean-Paul.

The Mage Flight dispersed at once, sending the Shard's Mages to the left and right while Bekker and her team moved to the fore, leaving Gwen and Jean-Paul holding the middle.

The three parties hovered forward for another fifteen seconds before Gwen caught her first glimpse of a Djinn.

The two that now approached were one female and one male, both as anthropomorphic as the tales foretold. The female was slender of form, with a sky-blue complexion framing an exotic face of no particular ethnicity. For attire, the creature may as well be wearing wisps of air, while dark blue strands of dew-laden hair fluttering from a strapped ponytail tethered with a brass bangle. In her right hand, the Djinn held a shimmering whip formed from condensed mana.

Comparatively, the male was lank but possessed well-defined musculature. On both arms, the creature wore enormous brass gauntlets crackling with electricity, while on his hip, a slim scimitar etched with squiggly runes loosely hung around a thick, copper-threaded belt.

Both, Gwen noted with awe, had their lower body taper to a tip until it resided in a golden receptacle. These, according to her Magister-instructors, were the Elementals' way of staying in the Prime Material— by anchoring their Essence in a container that shielded their Cores, a device no less difficult to destroy than a Lich's phylactery. This very same methodology also made Elementals prime targets for Core harvesting— assuming the sorcerous hunters weren't first enslaved or made into sport by their prey.

"Halt!" The male Djinn glided into place, his voice the sound of a howling gale. "Humans! Why do you pollute our presence with your befouling mana?"

"Djinn of the Air—" Bekker likewise declared in Elemental, a language impossible to invoke without the aid of upper-tier Ioun Stones. "Why do you bar our way? You who art merely travellers through our home and hearth?"

The Golden Rule, Gwen had learned from her instructors, was never to show your proverbial back when dealing with the Djinn, Dao, Marid or Efreet— one because these were beings who thrived through controlling "lesser beings", the other because there was nothing "dishonourable" about stabbing creatures the likeness of chattel in the back, even if they talked a good game. To a Demi-human Elemental, respect for mortal citizens of the Prime Material was akin to acknowledging a talking dog walking on two legs.

"Your subordinates appear able and useful." The female of the Djinn possessed a voice like a chilling breeze. "Our Master can offer you a chance to serve and ascend the mortal coil. There's no shame in offering oneself wholly to a greater being."

"I must decline the Caliphate's offer," Bekker replied without hesitation. "Though here's a counter-offer— the Mageocracy could always use mid-tier Djinns as Spirit Contractors. Isn't that better than serving your tyrants?"

The female Djinn chuckled, while the male Djinn laughed in Bekker's face. Gwen measured the pair with Detect Magic, determining the two to be about the seventh or eighth tier of pure power, though their Humanoid intelligence may well add two or more degrees to their threat level.

Unmoved by the mockery, the Meister's silent Message commanded them to hold their ground. She then signalled to Gwen and Jean-Paul via Taylor. "Gwen, Void Orb, two each to these insolent research specimens. Jean-Paul, I want a Maximised Void Vortex on that church spire to flush out the Greater Elemental."

Jean-Paul began to incant before his Master had even finished. Gwen quickly followed her team leader's command, ramming through the Elementally shifted Lightning Orb incantations.

Both Void Mages' pupils turned instantly midnight as the consumptive energy coursed through their conduits.

"Void Vortex"
"Void Orb!"

With Void vertigo caressing their allies, the pair let loose a torrent of Void spells at the Djinns.

The Elementals' mockery ceased at once as they attempted to dodge the seeking spheres hungry for immortal flesh. From their stationary position, the creatures slid backwards with an agility no human could manage, then flew forward toward the Mages, attempting to drive the seeking orbs into her allies.

"Perish, mortal!" The female attempted to envelop Bekker.

A shimmering semi-sphere of silver wrapped around the Meister, diverting the suddenly gaseous form of the Djinn.

"Dimension Anchor!" Kott wove a Glyph in each hand, drawing a temporary Mandala in the air.

Instantly, the Djinns re-materialised, their faces full of astonishment.

"Abjuring Ward!" Pietersen supplemented Kott's field control Abjuration with a defensive one, forming a perpendicular, concentric ripple of repulsive energy that prevented the Djinns from moving further into their formation.

In the split second that the Djinns and Mages exchanged spells, Gwen ensured that her attack struck true, forming four micro vortexes of all-devouring Void where the Djinns should be.

"Kott!" Taylor called out. "From below! It's the Greater Elemental!"

"Got it!" Major Kott laid out a dozen invocations at once. "Wall of Force!"

THUNK! THUNK! THUNK!

Dull, heavy thuds rang out as spears of air punched the enormous, invisible pane conjured by the Abjurer, making Kott grimace at the unplanned expenditure.

At the same time, Jean-Paul's vortex opened up as a miniature black hole, swallowing the withered spire's uppermost segment and drawing up all manner of detritus from the ruins below. Astonishingly, Gwen could also see hundreds of tiny, cowled silhouettes flying into the air, clinging onto the debris, or otherwise fleeing from the epicentre.

"INSOLENT MORTALS!" a thundering bark from below fulminated as rolling waves of thunder. Seemingly unaffected by the vortex's suction, the final Djinn, an enormous, four-meter male specimen bedecked from neck to wrist with golden bangles, tore itself from the diminishing form of Jean-Paul's spell. "How dare you interrupt our sacred labour!"

Bekker commanded her counterpart from the Shard.

"Spencer, Winston, you're up." Magister Taylor remained impassive, his ever-present halo of Divination scanning for additional enemies. "Suppress the Lesser Elementals. Kott, Mills, draw them away."

"Gwen, Jean-Paul," Bekker said to her students at the same time. "As your first test, the Greater Djinn is yours. You have a minute to Purge the thing. Else we do it for you."

"Yes, Ma'am!" The Void Mages obeyed.

"Firestorm!"
"Magma Cloud!"

The Evoker and Transmuter Maguses from the Shard let loose their unique spell variants, lighting up the night sky with pyrotechnics, driving the shifting Djinns from the party's air space through enviable displays of masterful spellshaping, aided by buffetting walls of energy that kept the Elementals from joining their superior.

Jean-Paul dropped from the middle of the three-Flight array and met the incoming Djinn head-on with his signature spell. "Usurp!"

The Djinn was far too fast for the Void user, but Jean-Paul never intended for the spell to connect. Instead, the imploding Usurp and its resultant burst smothered the Djinn's approach with fine particles of corrosive, mana-devouring Void.

Meanwhile, Gwen played it by the books by birthing both Ariel and Caliban in his Big Bird form, paying for the privilege with stowed vitality. With a wordless command, she sent her creatures forth, all the while fomenting a Chain Lightning of the Void variant.

"You would dare!" The enormous Djinn disappeared, then reappeared almost on top of them, its locomotion practically impossible to follow without Essence-enhanced eyes. With an outreached hand, it swiped right on Gwen.

"EE—EE!" Ariel delivered a foresightful warning.
Caliban dove, but was too late to act as a shield for its Master.

"Shield!" Gwen felt the pressurised air before the Elemental's gale struck. Her barrier instantly materialised, but unlike the Djinn, there was no way for her to anchor herself while in flight. Like a spiked netball struck by the equivalent of an empowered Bilby's Hand, she violently jerked right from the invisible assault, her body displacing so rapidly that she could feel her spine and neck crack from the whiplash. Her Void Lightning fizzled, sending a wave of sickness through her rioting conduits.

Jean-Paul let loose two more Usurp closer to the Djinn, aiming for the creature's tail Core. Effortlessly, the Djinn performed a reverse summersault through the air, at the same time tugging free an enormous, two meter-long copper blade patterned with runic etchings reminiscent of Damascus steel.

Before Jean-Paul's spell struck, the Djinn once more winked out of existence. The Void Mage allowed the attacks to implode anyway, noting that a portion of the tenebrous ink spray seemed to have caught something engaging in sub-sonic translocation.

Gwen used her Essence to banish the Void-sickness.

"Void Orb!" She sent forth four Elemental-seeking balls of black ink.

"Jean-Paul! Shield!" She then shouted from below, half choked with the effort of forcing down mana-feedback.

Jean-Paul chose to Blink instead, disappearing and reappearing at a random location away from the Djinn's trajectory.

Much to her relief, the creature's broad-bladed scimitar missed, though it did send a screaming crescent of high-velocity, volatile mana out in a vast, destructive arc.

Caliban swooped in, as did her Void Orbs.

But without Kott's Dimension Anchor, the Djinn merely dispersed itself, avoiding the brunt of both attacks, re-emerging with the equivalent of mere scratches marring its bronze armour.

"EE!" Ariel hoofed the air, lowered its head, then delivered a discharge of cobalt lightning.

CRACK!

This time, the solidified Djinn parried the blast with his copper sword.

"SHAA—!" Caliban's Big Bird turned, its white fingers reaching to crush the blue body, its tentacles flailing for Elemental flesh. The Djinn grinned, then swung the crackling copper blade at Gwen's Void Familiar.

"… Shit!" Gwen invoked her Shield once more. "Cali!"

The double-charged Chain Lightning from the Djinn arced across the horizon, first crashing into Caliban, then leaping from her Familiar onto its closest target, herself. Gwen's world turned white as her Shield distorted from the abjuring mana absorbing the electricity, after which the discharge leapt from her barrier onto Ariel.

"EE-EE!" Ariel likewise consumed the Elemental Lightning, then howled in challenge and protest. "EE!"

"Beast!" The Djinn howled. "Leave your mortal, obey me!"

From their Empathic Link, Gwen understood that Ariel wanted to redeem itself. Concurrently, Caliban quickly reformed its singed and erupted flesh and was ready to strike once more.

The Djinn quickly circled, reacquiring its attack path.

She and Jean-Paul locked eyes.
Jean-Paul's every-situation Void speciality was great, but first, he had to connect.
Her spells, as far she could tell, the Djinn could avoid with ease.
Naturally, this was a test, and Kotts would not be helping with his Dimensional Anchor.

Meanwhile, their minute was almost up.

Very quickly, Gwen made up her mind.

"Fine, you want to play silly buggers?" She taunted the Djinn by unleashing an unearthly volume of Elemental Lightning, unequivocally capturing the creature's attention. "Cali! Jean-Paul! Get ready!"

"Shaa!"
"Got it!" her partners returned her silent message. Ready to catch her fuck up should the worst come to pass.

"Lowly Elemental!" She blasted a Clarion Call at the Djinn. "Dare you to take on the might of my Lightning?"

"HA!" The Air Djinn, one she figured must be composed of a hundred per cent unadulterated pride, rose to the challenge with gusto. "Bold claim, mortal female. I like you. If you survive, this one shall leash you both and feed only the male to the rats!"

Ignoring the Djinn's taunt to put her in a Princess Leia outfit, Gwen held off until the last second before she infused her next strike with Almudj's Essence. With an audible grunt of effort, Gwen channelled her vivified mana through Ariel while separately squeezing out un-altered lightning as a feint.

"Barbanginy!"

Twin arcs of rip-roaring, air-igniting, reality-rending emerald emerged from Ariel's sixteen-pointed horns, instantly linking the Familiar and the Djinn.

The surprised Elemental expertly parried her bolt of blue, then twisted its torso in the manner of a contortionist so that it could meet Ariel's emerald thunderbolt.

CRA-CRACK—BOOM! Half the peninsula lit up.

The energies' meeting manifested as a hysterical expansion of plasma, consuming not only the copper blade but the Djinn itself.

"Usurp!" Jean-Paul reinforced the impact with his Signature Spell, rapidly depleting the diffusing mana until his Orb grew into the size of a car. With a visible strain on his ashen face, the Void Mage allowed the stolen energy to "Implode!"

Not to be beaten, Caliban charged into the Void splatter, unaffected by the volatile element. When it emerged from the opposite side, it indicated the absence of a Djinn. Thankfully, her Familiar appeared to have recovered the creature's receptacle, now smouldering and sizzling the bird's eerie, white fingers.

Gwen breathed out, glad that her hypothesis of overloading the Djinn with Almudj's higher-order lightning worked out as anticipated instead of creating a super-Djinn cracking with emerald electricity to end them all.

Huffing with relief, she looked up toward Jean-Paul's Meister, fishing for approval.

The Meister and her crew looked down on them with big smiles, their fight with the two lower-order Djinns long over through means Gwen was too preoccupied to see.

"Well done," Meister Bekker congratulated them both as they floated up. "Now, let's see what our Djinns were up to, then quickly get out of here. It'll take no more than ten minutes before the next patrol arrives."

Rapidly, the party descended upon Baudino.

During their dogfight with the Djinns, the party's earlier conversation had already forewarned Gwen of the presence of whatever the Elementals were fielding on the old base. Even so, a scene of horror unfurled below her like a dystopian Neill Blomkamp movie trailer.

"Christ... are those... Rat— PEOPLE?"

Rats, or Rat-kin, to use a politically correct vernacular, were crowded neck-deep in an enormous, smoothed out pit where the old silo used to be. It was incredible to Gwen that even after Jean-Paul had cleansed the site's crumbling structures with a Void Vortex, there were still so many of the damnable mammalians huddled together in such a state.

What wretched creatures, a thought came to her mind.

But that wasn't right either. Never in Gwen's life had she imagined that "wretched" could be so kind a word. Even in China, in District 109, Gwen had not considered that the Chinese NoMs lived in such dire straits to be beyond wretchedness. Yet here, in this town of no purpose on the coast of the Caspian, she once more gazed into an unfamiliar abyss.

The scene below was like the shipwreck of the Medusa, only now, it wasn't sailors scampering through the ghoulish painting, but thousands-upon-thousands of Rat-kin clambering over one another to escape. Whenever a dozen or so got close to the top of the wind-worn igneous "hole", the weight of their bodies would collapse, crushing those below, preventing escape.

The ones strong enough to flee had already clambered out, she realised from the earlier scene. What's left was the weak and the feeble, or merely the unlucky.

All around her, her fellow Mages shared her horror.

Their oppressive pressure seemed to agitate the Rat-kin even more, sending the darkling swarm into such a frenzy that to Gwen, it seemed like a riot of black bodies boiling over the side of an enormous crockpot.

Presently, the breeze from the ocean changed directions.

Ye Gods! Gwen almost swooned. The STENCH!
Her hypersensitive olfactory organs jump-kicked her brain.
Even with the Fire Sea's sporadic wind washing over the pit, the smell did not disperse. There were all kinds of odours— rat excreta, sticky body fluids, smouldering rotten meat, spoiled feed and water— which was a stink in itself— mixed in a heavy, dank miasma. Where she could see the ground, the floor was churned to a consistency of warm putty by the milling of feet across sloshing puddles of faeces and urine. That was why the pit was so damn slippery. That was why no rat could escape.

Covering her mouth and nose, Gwen unhappily discerned that the Rat-folk were skeletons wearing skin, each one with gaunt faces and deeply set yellow eyes that glimmered from the light of the Mage's descent.

"What the hell is this?" She asked no one in particular. "I don't understand."

"The Steppes are famous for Centaurs, but it's the Rat-kin who make up the bottom rung of the Grassland ecology," Taylor explained patiently. "These local vermin fled en mass during the Tide, destroying the upper Steppes with their tunnel warrens."

The Mages from her team didn't appear to have an answer either, except Meister Bekker. "Do recall that I said things had changed since we planned our outing— this is what's changed."

"What's changed?" Gwen remained befuddled.

"Considering the context," the Meister said. "Are any of you familiar with the method of cultivating powerful quasi-magical ingredients used by the Indigenous witch women of Yunnan?"

To the party's wonder, Gwen's quivering voice answered the Meister.

"Yes— the practice of putting poisonous quasi-magical insects into a single Gu pot, then allowing them to cannibalise one another until only the strongest remain. Due to the magical nature of these creatures, battling and consuming of one's foes lead to powerful evolutions, assuming at least one combatant emerges victorious."

"Yes, 'Gu Cultivation' is a method that has existed since ancient times." Bekker glanced at the four Mages from Pretoria, who were each in their way, fascinated by the bubbling body-pit below. "You should understand better than most, Gwen, that same methodology is widely used by the Dragons. They would populate a mountain with their Essence-polluted kindred. After millennia, one being would consume enough others to emerge as a tyrant just below the power of a True Dragon. This being would then serve the Master of the mount until it either died, the Master ascends, or it was itself defeated and by a new guardian."

"What are they possibly hoping to achieve with the Rat-folk?" Gwen furrowed her brows. "What about the Centaurs?"

"This IS about the Centaurs." Bekker sighed. "I'll explain as we fly. Jean-Paul, Gwen, you have five minutes to restock your expended vitality."

Gwen gasped, her resistance to such a suggestion evident on her grimacing face.

Jean-Paul spoke beside her. "If we let them go, they'll be a plague. If Magus Spencer or one of the others cleanse them, it'll be a grotesque waste of vitality."

Gwen observed the still-churning bodies below.

"So either way, we're the good guys?" Her voice quivered with ambivalence. "What a convenient outlook."

Jean-Paul shrugged. "Umzokwe!"

An enormous white leech crash-landed into the pit, crushing a dozen rats attempting to scamper out of the way.

Gwen gnashed her pearly whites but couldn't find a way to refute Jean-Paul's twisted logic. Forcing the syllables to her lips, she invoked her Conjuration Sigil and brought forth her most efficient vitality-harvesters, the Hydras of Elizabeth's fame.

As the sounds of screeching diminished below, she contemplated if there was another route for dealing with these Rat-kin. The problem was one of insufficient knowledge, and it was one she realised Bekker had forced upon her. She had no idea why the Elementals were running a Gu pot with the Rat-kin, nor did she know the Rat-kin's natural place in the Steppe's hierarchy. Without either elucidation, how could she act? To do so purely out of moral sentimentality would engender a far greater danger, such as an actual plague, considering the state of these filth-ridden Demi-humans.

Gwen blinked as her final thought struck.

Earlier, Bekker had the whole party buffed with Resistance to Disease.

"Ma'am…" Gwen looked up at Meister Bekker. "Are… the Elementals trying to create some kind of super disease to plague the centaurs? Is that why... THIS exists?"

Bekker golf-clapped, evidently impressed by her deductive reasoning. "Excellent, Magus Song. That kind of intelligence will be beneficial when you're a Tower Master."

Gwen sucked in a mouthful of foetid air when Bekker affirmed her worst fears.

"The Djinns know how to use... biological warfare? Holy Cowtaurs…" Her perceptions turned upside down and inside out. These Elementals and their ability to deliver a ploy were beyond incredible. Uncontrollably, she shivered, realising that their foes in the Fire Sea weren't merely monsters, but a civilisation no less malicious than Humanity and just as exotically advanced as the Elves or Dwarves.

Just as she marvelled at her self-induced epiphany, a hand tapped her shoulder.

"What's up?" She engaged the concerned face of Jean-Paul.

"Gwen…" the Void Mage pointed a finger below. "The Rat-kin…"
"Yes?" She looked down.

Her pupils contracted.
Her Hydras were gobbling up the Rat-kin by the mouthful, but concurrently, the opposite was also happening.

"Yep…" Jean-Paul effortless inhaled a lungful of gut-churning miasma. "Gwen, I think they're eating your Hydra…"

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Wutosama

Bio: I write on the phone and edit at home. Times are tough!

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