Gwen tasted the tar-like Essences permeating the horizon as a metallic tang playing on her tongue.
The sorcery empowering the Essence was familiar to her. It was arcanistry she owned thanks to Brown and Wen, through whom she had Frankensteined Greenskin Shamanism, contemporary Spellcraft, nouveau Void theory and Soul Flayer Necromancy to accomplish Essence sympathy through Essence Tap. By all logic, somebody should have died and the researchers arrested— but thanks to the elasticity of her mana conduits and the pliant nature of her Void-abused body, her Frankensteined Signature Spell lurched to life.
No doubt, Wen and Brown would shortly publish a paper on the matter, after which they would receive standing ovations from their British and European cabal-peers for pushing the boundaries of Spellcraft. As for herself, whatever the implications, she maintained her stance that her dalliance with Necromancy was a necessary pitfall. After all, the vitality she had managed to share with Gracie had enabled a way for less fortunate Void Mages to attain Affinity-parity and thus life. As for the cost, Gwen could only say that upright and Soul-tapped was better than dead and dusted.
As for the Essence soup bubbling over the horizon— she wetted her lips.
How would it feel to tap Caliban into that? Assuming she didn't pop like an overzealous gender-reveal balloon, would she wield power like an apocryphal angel visiting vengeance upon her enemies?
"That must be Nukus— I should also warn you there's an active War Host ahead," Taylor's voice came through the Divination halo, his tone wane from the constant travel. "From the density of their mana signatures, I'd say an Ordu. Likely the Khan is on the hunt. There's a monstrous Earthen mana signature among them."
Since leaving at daybreak, the party had flown for almost ten hours, with the only rests being Gwen and Jean-Paul practising on local fauna and stray Elemental monsters to stock up on vitality, and when they ran into an oasis too tempting to gloss over.
Finally, in the afternoon, with the Amu in view, the Caspian behind them and the glittering sands of the Sawahi beyond, they reached the Divi-Orb's final destination.
"… I do believe they're hunting an Afaa Al-Halak, dangerous as they are; only prey of that size can feed a war host. But I digress—" Taylor paused half-sentence, for there was no more need for clarification.
Down below and near the horizon, some distance past the river Amu and what looked to be an enormous city of yurts and pavilions, a roving cloud of dust and sand blew past concentric circles of rolling cavalry. From their vantage, Gwen could see that the "riders" were fighting something in the dust cloud. The scene was astounding, not just because of the scale of the combat— which must involve what looked like almost ten thousand Centaurs, but that the Horse Lords' formation resembled an animated Mandala.
"Gwen, Jean-Paul, holding pattern—" Bekker halted the party. "Taylor, take Hill and present yourselves. Tell them we have arrived and that we shall await the Great Khan's pleasure for an audience."
"Understood." Taylor signalled to the Transmuter, who followed his flight path toward the largest structure in the yurt-city below, what Gwen assumed to be the Golden Pavilion.
With their Ambassador gone, the rest of the party settled in to enjoy the show, proffering mana-rich rations and self-warming mugs of tea via cantrips of levitation.
"Here." Jean-Paul handed Gwen a slathered piece of re-inflated curried-egg sandwich. Gwen noticed her friend's irises were awash with obsidian mana, a testament to his excitement. "There it is, the Mongolian Deathworm— they grow up to a kilometre long and use vibrations on their carapace to displace the sand. The largest of them are land Leviathans! They can tunnel between the Prime Material and the Murk. Some even say the Dwarves appropriate their passage tunnels to make the Dyar Mokk!"
Gwen chewed on her sandwich; her buddy's passion for worm-like things was expected but unsettling nonetheless.
"Here it comes!" Jean-Paul shouted; in the next moment, a bone-throbbing drone drowned out the Void Mage's voice.
Emerging from the dust cloud like a breaching whale, the infamous "Mongolian Death Worm" made its debut.
"STREWTH—" Gwen near-choked on the reconstituted egg. Her brain could scarcely comprehend the monster's scale. "That's a bloody BIG worm!"
In her mind, Gwen had envisioned a mega-fauna variant of the Earthen Wyrm she had consumed in the Dwarven Murk. She had even entertained the idea of subsuming one so that she could ride her Afaa Al-Cali through the sand, Fremen style.
But this thing was a whole other tier.
With her Essence-enhanced eyes, Gwen could see the Centaur warriors milling beneath it. These, she understood from her encounter with the Goat Lord to be three meters tall. Among the rush of brown-clad warriors, she could also see the Horse Lord's officers, their mails flashing gold and silver, their huffing bodies clad in blood-dyed ink. Whether because of magic or breeding, these Centaur Centurions sat almost four meters tall, with great big hooves the size of car tires churning up great big clods as they passed.
Yet, set against the emerging Afaa Al-Halak, these Centaurs appeared mere aphids trying to climb the stalk of a robust, sun-seeking serpent vine.
Heedless of the Horse Lords' harassment, the Sand Wyrm hunted, its skyscraper body twisting through the air with the force of a seismic eruption. As its great head roved, a three-part maw opened like the petals of a carnivorous flower, revealing undulating rows of teeth sieving sand between the gaps. Horrifically, she could see Centaurs and bipedal Beast-kin leaping from the lifting jaws.
A football field-sized bite attack? Gwen trembled at the thought of trying to fight such a thing. Was this how Alesia felt when fighting Almudj in the Royal National? What would a Void Orb even do to a being of that scale? How did the Centaurs hope to fight it? Even if one survived the Sand Wyrm's nip or avoided it, there was still the net mass of the worm's body slam to take into account.
As if in answer to her uncertainty, the Centaurs began their counterattack.
"There!" Jean-Paul pointed to a spearhead formation emerging from the mass of horses below, his eyes alive with excitement. "That's the Khan of Khans!"
Gwen did not need her companion's guidance, for she had sensed the gathering of Essence and vitality visibly forming a ripple across the battlefield, centring on a Centaur wrapt in the Thunderblooded Clan's Sanguine scripture.
Temir Khan, Khan of Khans, stood some four meters tall and clad from head to toe in golden mail, a heavy pilum in one hand hefted overhead. Like the vortex centre of an unfathomable maelstrom, the Essence taxed from his followers amassed upon his arching body, transforming his hair and fur into vivid hematite. Rearing on his hind legs, the Khan tensed every muscle, transferring every mote of power into the singing metal of his lance while scarlet mist fled from the gaps between his armour and barding.
Above, as an impossible sand sculpture, the Afaa Al-Halak arched into the air, propelled by its titanic body, poised to roll over the Centaur herd.
The Khan waited for the Sand Wyrm to reach the zenith, then launched his pilum.
Gwen crushed the curried sandwich with one hand as the pilum made a resounding BOOM, tearing through the sound barrier, leaving ignited air in its wine-red wake.
By this time, the Sand Wyrm had begun its descent. Turning downward, it aimed its colossal body at a troop of Centaurs who presently held its aggravation.
The pilum struck.
Something akin to thunder fulminated. As a Lightning Mage, Gwen knew all about thunderbursts— but even so, she felt shaken by the sound of the pilum's impact against the Afaa Al-Halak's armoured side. To her dazzled brain, the result was like the unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.
What manner of Newtonian exchange must be involved to shift the inertia of a falling skyscraper? Her organs rioted from the awe-inspired adrenaline. Just how much Essence was needed to turn awry the titan's trajectory?
"GUUUUAARRRRRR—" The Sand Wyrm's cry was like ten-thousand Oliphants trumpeting in disharmony.
"Christ above," one of the Maguses swore beside her. "No wonder the Horse Lords can fight the Elementals to a standstill."
"I don't think any of us is going to abjure that." Major Nott made the exact observation that flashed through their heads.
"How do we deal with it then?" Gwen asked her tutor.
"By not dealing with it." Nott exhaled. "That attack harnessed strength from the entire Ordu. I don't know how often it can be employed— but when your opponent commits his entire force, don't stand in the way."
"… So we cut our losses and then hope to attack back with enough power to return the favour?" Gwen gritted her teeth.
"Allowing such an attack to occur is already enough of a misstep," Nott informed her, his blue eyes growing hard. "To then hope for the best would be the height of naivety. Not planning to soak up losses and return as good as they've given is then unforgivable stupidity."
"Well said, Major." Schoeman, the Magister serving under Bekker, gave the Major a thumbs up.
"I don't see why it's impossible—" Magus Hughes, Taylor's nightrider, disagreed. "Misdirecting the attack is your best bet. Just make the Centaur shoot anywhere you're not, and they've wasted their efforts."
"Unless you can manifest Illusions at the speed of sound, I would hope our Contingency Rings holds up." Pietersen, another crew member under Bekker's domain, did not appear to think highly of their Fifth Cabal observer. "Besides, it is naive to think the Khan lacks countermeasure against Illusion. Elemental Marids are born weaving mirages, and their range and scale far exceed the limits of Spellcraft."
The atmosphere grew tense, though Meister Bekker remained apathetic to the competition brewing between their two factions. Following her instructor's example, Gwen kept her attention focused on the titanic struggle below.
From the writhing body of the wyrm, Gwen could see that the attack had been strong enough to send organ-shattering shockwaves up and down the creature's body. Where the wound had erupted like a volcano, an enormous hole had formed, a concave cavity within which she could see shattered entrails spurting gallons of purple blood— a fact exacerbated by the worm's crash landing. Even now, the stunned titan was projectile vomiting from its tri-petal maw, indicating that a significant section of its digestive tract was in revolt— or in tatters.
Around the Afaa Al-Halak, the Horse Lords continued their assault, peppering the Sand Wyrm's head with arrows. Just as she wondered what good such small pin-pricks would do, the four cavalry circles split into separate Mandala-shaped formations. From each loop, a mighty Horse Lord emerged, carrying six-meter pilums that resembled vaulting poles.
Gwen's eagle-eyes spotted the barbed tip and the hooked weight at the haft. "Holy shit! Is that a harpoon?"
The closest Horse Lord, his armour clad in Bronze, Gold and studded in coins of Mithril, usurped the Essence from his warrior circle.
Gwen held her breath, anticipating the ultraviolence to come.
Not to disappoint, the Horse Lord launched the missile with the force of an ICBM, breaking the sonic barrier at a hundred meters as the projectile became a booming, red-hot lance of destructive energy.
—CLANG! Even from a few kilometres away, Gwen could hear the sound of the harpoon-spear penetrating what must be a meter-thick wall of chitin.
Without stopping, the Horse Lord drew another pilum.
Their audience collectively produced gasps of scalp-itching dismay. The damn Centaurs could rapid-fire these things?!
"That settles that." Nott's face blanched. "That said, there must be a limitation to their Shamanism—"
"Poor longevity," Jonke observed. "Vitality isn't infinite, after all, even if it naturally regenerates."
"What if we alpha-strike the leader?" Jonke proposed.
"That or collapse the lower base of their vitality-pyramid," Bekker remarked, glancing at Gwen.
Streaming companies of Horse Lords rode past the dazed Sand Wyrm.
"What are they doing now?" Jean-Paul stared confusedly at the scene, his expression showing undisguised sympathy for the mighty worm bullied by an army of brutal, relentless ants.
"They're catching it, I think." Gwen could see that the other riders passing the wounded and dazed Wyrm was expertly throwing arm-thick ropes onto the hooked ends of the pilums, securing their barbs in the manner of bee-stings. She imagined the Horse Lords harnessing the Afaa Al-Halak, Fremen style, then riding the sand titans for thousands of kilometres through the Sand Sea. "I wonder how they'll feed a pet that size."
Within the minute, despite the imminent danger of the wyrm rolling over the roving calvary, the creature's back became a criss-crossing mess of overlapping ropes that looked like spider-silk from above. These, Gwen supposed, both stopped the animal from twisting to dive back into the sand and to secure it so that the Horse Lords could continue to tame it without being pulverised by its whale-maw.
"I don't think…." Jean-Paul's voice grew full of doubt.
In the next moment, both of their mouths fell open.
The Centaurs' formation parted. The mightiest of them began to race away from the Sand Wyrm while pulling on the tethered harpoons.
The Mages from both the Shard and Pretoria grimaced and cringed, gritting their teeth as a flower of unimaginable carnage blossomed into bloody life.
Like tearing the shell off a hapless crayfish, the ropes grew taunt; then, with a mighty surge of Essence that manifested as a pink haze, the Horse Lords split off an entire section of the Sand Wyrm's hide.
Gwen's balled palms had by now compressed her curried egg sandwich back into its satchel form.
"SHREEEEEE—" An unexpected and piercing shriek from above signalled Gwen and the Mages to a flock of Eagle-Harpies awaiting their turn.
On cue, like a swarm of obsidian locust, the flock descended, aiming for the most vulnerable aspects of the Sand Wyrm's exposed flesh, tearing at the visible tendons and vessels. At the same time, the lesser Centaurs converged, rapidly reforming into streams of pilum tossing strike teams.
Gwen looked away, feeling physically ill. There was violence, and then there was the live degloving of a creature that only moments ago was full of majesty. Beneath the armoured sections of the flopping worm, she could see its glistening flesh growing paler with every pulse of purple ichor.
Unfazed by their brutal labour, more of the horses engaged in the same gory act of glory, quickly turning the ochre sand of the badlands into a scarlet swamp. At each triumphant gallop, hooves churning the blood-stained sand transmuted the earth into bloody pudding.
The wyrm's vitals were failing. This much Gwen could tell without needing Caliban's aid. Thanks to her ever-hungry Astral Body, her natural Divination could perceive the absurd volume of life seeping from the Afaa Al-Halak's rapidly deflating body. It was a waste— but the wyrm was the Centaur's bounty, and even if the escaping Essence and life were to soak the sand, it was the Khan's to waste.
"HWAA—OOOH—!" Came a cry from the marauders from below, announcing their victory. The feasting Eagle-Harpies from above echoed the bellow below, their screeches like hysterical violin-strings.
Gwen felt strangely shaken.
Rarely since coming into her rightful talents had she felt so helpless in the face of overwhelming power. The hunt she had just witnessed demonstrated the prowess of a warrior culture millennia in the making. Mighty as the Mongolian Death Worm was, a creature of brute elemental strength was no match for a civilisation that had once reigned over the largest land empire on the Prime Material.
A horn blew, its soulful drone touching every corner of the battlefield.
From the direction of Nukus and the main camp, great caravans of bipedal Tasmüyiz surged from the yurt-city. Urgent trains of carts pushed by Beast-kins tall, stout, large and miniscule made for the burping carcass of a worm almost a kilometre long.
Gwen touched her face— she was sweat-soaked from the collar of her combat suit to its interior.
She inhaled deeply, then sighed deep and long.
Who would have thought, the Devourer of Shenyang solemnly acknowledged, that Centaurs were harder to straddle than Necromancers?
By the time Taylor and Hill returned to guide their party toward the Golden Pavilion, the colossal work of portioning the Afaa Al-Halak was well underway.
Of the piles of ingredients harvested from the mighty carcass, chitin plates were stacked sky-high to one side, accompanied by a hill of translucent flesh, then an enormous pit of rendered, jade-white lard. A second crater meter deep and tennis-court sized was excavated by the Tasmüyiz to dispose of the Wyrm's shattered organs. Segment by segment the bipedal Beast-kin laboured, knee-deep in blood-silt, each worker transformed into abstract figurines of gore. Already, she had spotted a few Humans among the work slaves.
"Gwen…" Jean-Paul nudged her as they slowly descended, watched by thousands of curious Centaurs and Beast-kin. "Check out that Core…"
Gwen's gaze drifted to a Creature Core the size of a cargo van, shaped like a fossilised heart.
Titanic creatures like Mongolian Death Worms did not reach an extraordinary tier unless they acquired enough Draconic blood to supersede their base ancestry. Nonetheless, their Cores provided essential materials for Shielding Stations and other infrastructural installations. As the Centaurs had no use themselves for such a thing, the Creature Core would likely be exchanged for wheat and other supplies on the cheap. According to Taylor, the Khanate possessed scant patience for economic management, leaving most of the work to the Şöpter servants, whose awkward social status made ergonomic trade arrangements near-impossible. Ironically, though Tasmüyizs skilled at trade and barter existed, no member of the Khanate cared enough to gift the slave races the necessary autonomy to improve their economy.
The Horse Lord that received them, "The Cherbi Khudu", was one of the praetorian specimens that lead the raid on the Afaa Al-Halak. Visually, the Horse Lord was an astounding spectacle of masculinity, his upper body twice the circumference and height of Andre the Giant, sporting the bullish neck of a pro wrestler wider than Gwen's waist. Impressively, the Centaur's lower body was that of a roan Clydesdale taller than Gwen even if she wore her most painful heels. Like his peers, the Khitani Centaurs' face was chisel-jawed with an eagle-beaked nose and iris colours matching his elemental Affinity.
After a final round of reminders from Taylor, the party landed. As Bekker had ordained, Gwen's role was to play the pretty and silent doll until the moment Taylor brandished her as their War Mage. After the show and tell, she would then be excused to explore the compound with Jean-Paul.
It was just as well that Gwen intended to heed her superiors, for else she would have already complained about the smell.
Now that they were in the "thick" of it, fur-musk, sweat, and the sharp tang of tanned leather was omnipresent. There was also the sweet stink of melons and other vegetables, some fresh, some half-eaten and some rotting in carts waiting to be hauled away. Worse still, near every yurt clustered toward the "city" and its centre, roving herds of smouldering chattel made her eyes water.
Understandably, a race that was always on the move had little use for infrastructures such as plumbing or trash management. Sans extra-large Storage Rings, there was no way to haul the refuse-disposing Magi-tech engines that serviced man's NoM Districts. Though here and there she could see Tasmüyiz sweeping the streets, there were far more sheep and pack animals than labouring Rat-folks. At the same time, it wasn't as though the locals were bothered by the heady scent haze.
Closer to the Khan's tent, the streets grew broad enough for six Horse Lords to pass abreast. The structures that prefaced their approach— Gwen noticed, grew more prominent the closer she got to the city's epicentre. Likewise, their Centaur entourage grew in number until she felt positively sandwiched between flanking walls of oiled barding.
At the entrance to the pavilion, two Şöpters manservants with the heads of bulls opened the pavilion's enormous drapes, revealing the perfumed world within.
Unlike other members of her team, whose eyes were drawn straight away to the visage of the Khan of Khans in the centre of the pocket plane of the tent, Gwen's eyes fell on the pillars holding up the entrance.
Totem poles! She recognised the twin columns at once. In her study of her Masters' sorcery, her curriculum reading included an outdated section on Totemic Shamanism of the Greenskins and Beast-kin. The footnotes had stated that the learning and teaching of Shamanistic mysticism was a verbal affair, with spells passed on as chants and songs. Simultaneously, as a companion art, the esoteric spiritualism that empowered ancestral sorcery was transmitted via ancestral Totem columns.
From the looks of the Totems presented here— two at the gate and six more in the further reaches of the yurt holding the superstructure together— the history of Clan Khitan must be vast and long indeed.
Taylor had said that Horse Lords tended to live fast and die young— the Khan himself was barely past his forties and his father scarcely seventy when the Tide took his life— but these Totems must be thousands of years old. If indeed the Khitani Centaurs predate human history, then these relics must precede Egypt's First Dynasty.
Gwen fought down an urge to touch the sacred wood.
When her eyes finally lifted from the Sanguine Scripts that formed the basis of the Shamanism used by the Centaurs, her party was bowing before the big horse himself.
"Welcome, Mage Lords from the north," came the voice from above. "You have come at a time of plenty, allies of the Khitan."
Gwen lifted her eyes to steal a peek at the being who had earlier king punched an Afaa Al-Halak into kingdom come.
"The Mageocracy thanks you for the welcome, Khan of Khans, Lord of the Steppes, Scion of the Tengri's Thunder-threaded Golden Blood…"
While her betters exercised boorish diplomacy, Gwen scanned the interior of the giant yurt. The most notable feature was the acres of carpet, some overlapping, some placed in patterned rows covering the ground. Compared to the red flooring, the yurt's walls comprised patterned, criss-crossing beams adorned with intermittent drapes of spun wool.
What was most impressive to her was the skylight, an enormous opening that allowed the sunlight to be gently filtered by shrouds of silk that resembled floating clouds. At the centre of the skylight array, a zodiac depicting a sun and moon constellation bathed Temir Khan in holy luminescence.
The Great Khan himself, much to her surprise, was smaller in stature than his guards, chief of whom was his Cherbi. Seated upon the dais, the Horse King was a spectacle of gold-etched plate mail threaded with spun Mithril and engraved with True Silver. The most striking characteristic of Temir Khan Tengri was the inner light pooling in his depthless irises, a feature that immediately made Gwen think of Solana.
A Vessel? She wondered— then refuted her initial impression.
There was Essence in the Khan, a great deal of it— but it wasn't Draconic.
What the Khan possessed was the Essence of his Khitani Horse-kin and their slave legions.
"Meister Bekker, your presence among us is an unexpected boon," the Khan's diplomacy continued, his timbre deep, measured and confident. "With your aid, I am assured that our Elemental enemies to the south will soon retreat into their brass-bound fortress…"
While her superiors conversed, Gwen's gaze slid from the Khan once more.
Beside the deified Horse Lord's dais were three empty divans, likely indicating the positions occupied by his generals. Assuming these were seats usually laid out for his Orkoks, Gwen estimated the Khan's military expedition at forty-thousand horses, excluding the auxiliary forces of bipedal foot troops and their Tasmüyiz fodder.
Curiously, Gwen noted, she had failed to spot a single mare or filly. Servants aside, the Khan's pavilion was a raging stud fest.
What did this mean? She wondered. Do Centaur women not have a place in the Golden Pavilion? There was certainly no shortage of long-legged, flax-maned mares on their way in, many of who wore rich and vibrant fabrics and had brigades of Tasmüyiz servant scurrying underfoot.
Gwen's suspicion remained until her eyes landed on a dark corner behind the Khan, where she detected a well-endowed feminine figure.
Instantly, she sensed a slight tingle in her Divination Sigil. It wasn't a call for danger— but rather the feeling of someone probing her with their mind.
In response, Gwen sent out mental feelers of her own.
Their thoughts soon touched.
Besides the Great Khan, a pair of amber eyes stared into Gwen's own.
It was a Şöpter Faun dressed in richly hued diaphanous silk, marking her as no mere servant. Around the woman's neck, just covering her ample bosoms, sat a semi-circle necklace of threaded teeth— the emblem of a senior Shaman. Unlike other Şöpter slaves adorning the place like decor, her goat horns were polished and manicured, curving handsomely so that the Mithril-dipped tip and its hanging jewels framed her exquisite face.
There was a familiar air about the woman.
The Şöpter was undeniably a bipedal Beast-kin. Yet, from the Faun's confident shoulders, bright eyes, and sensual mouth, Gwen observed the same aura possessed by Lady Grey, Lucy Astor, and Elvia's gentle Rectrix. Though she stood in the shadow of the Khan, power and influence came as naturally to her as the air she breathed.
Committing to her hypothesis, Gwen smiled at the Faun, offering a premeditated olive branch.
The Şöpter smiled back, her expression amicable and inviting.
Inexplicably, she felt as though the two of them stood alone and vis-a-vis in the throne room.
Only when Gwen refocused could she once more hear the forced laughter from Bekker, Taylor and her sorcerous crew, inflating the fantastic yurt with flatulent puffs of diplomatic flattery.