Metaworld Chronicles

by

Wutosama

Chapter 415 - Ballad of the Potter Wasp

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The Hedge Wizard
 


 

Without a second of hesitation, Gwen activated Death March, simultaneously delivering an unambiguous order for her Rat-kin to flee in four routes away from the incoming Afaa al-Halak. This way, even if one-quarter of her wards got caught up in the earth-churning battle to come, at least three-quarters should remain safe.

Unlike the original Greenskin spell, she conducted no ceremony nor worship. Instead, with complete practicality, Gwen tethered her conduits to Caliban, then incanted the rites that would activate the Sigils necessary to mimic the effect of the Shamanistic enchantment. A second later, she became a living vitality transformer, her Astral and physical body substations to Caliban's Consumption-powered generator.

Fighting exhaustion, her irises sparked with vivid viridescence as the converted vitality of countless living beings Caliban had consumed empowered her favoured Rat-kins, concurrently saturating their scions with an emerald vibrancy.

"Priestess!"
"Goddess!"
"Scree— SCREEE—"
"Scree— SCREEE—SCREE—"

Her screeching Centurions transformed into shamrock beacons in the dying light of day, turning the rat horde an eerie shade of chartreuse.

Through them, Gwen could feel her rats, their whereabouts, and the buoyant emotions of hope and worship and faith flowing through their minds like a mighty river.

"GO!" she commanded them, instilling her rats with a silent command to work as one.

Her Rat-kin fled, those hale and able carrying the sick, while the Ascended each bore three Rats, one on their back, one in each arm, bounding down the dunes for the safety of darkness and distance to Shalkar.

Some may yet fall victim to the surviving Harpies or the desert cats that roamed the valley, but Gwen had no energy now to spare the unlucky few.

"EE-ee?" Ariel nudged her side, sensing the resonating anxiety stemming from her Divination Sigil.

"Shaa-Shaa!" Caliban remained keen on finding another source of vitality to replenish what its Master had removed via sorcerous coercion.

After soothing her Familiars, Gwen materialised from her Storage Ring a Sand Wyrm larval Core, the largest they had recovered along the way. Then, shuddering as the Void Energy ravaged her overly-taxed conduits, she activated her latent, life-saving defences.

"Reactive Bone Shield!" Her first insurance spell consumed the Creature Core, manifesting in the space surrounding her body as phantom scarab shells that would solidify into physical barriers should her health be threatened.

"Lesser Sanguine Mantle!" The second spell was her true-preserver— another layer of insurance on top of her Contingency Ring; as helpful as the storages were, it neither prevented mortal injury nor assured survival against the Land Leviathan.

"Sympathetic Life-Link!" Concluding with her final insurance, Gwen felt her skin crawl as faint scarlet threads materialised in the direction of her Familiars and her Planar Ally.

Caliban was a giant clump of aberrant vitality that manifested in the Astral Space of her mind like an enormous, tumorous growth. In comparison, its brother Ariel was a sleek sliver of condensed lifeforce brimming with Positive Energy, atypical of Lightning-imbued Magical Creatures. Golos, conversely, was a crystalline nucleus of unalloyed life, as befitting the scion of a True Dragon. So long as Life-Link remained active, Ariel and Golos should both benefit from Caliban's future feast.

Other lesser buffs followed. Everything from Resist Elements to Enhanced Ability, though these were now insignificant. If she took a full blow from something delivering the equivalent force of a rocket-propelled skyscraper, having a more robust constitution or the means to bench another fifty kilograms wasn't going to help.

Her current plan was simple. If the Sand Wyrm proved intelligent enough to negotiate, she would use Almudj's Essence to bluff the beast. However, if the creature revealed itself to be dumb, she could only fight to delay its passage.

As for wrangling the worm as though she were Lancelot of old...

She had met and fought enough Magical Creatures now to know that the older the being, the more exponential the "force" required to best them. A genuinely ancient monster that had lived a millennium or more in the sands of the Sawahi weren't something Caliban or herself could hope to consume without paying an equal cost.

Mayhap Shoggy could give the Sand Wyrm a run for its money. For now— the best she could hope to do was divert the creature long enough for her rats to flee for shelter.

"I'll attack first." Golos huffed, filling the frigid night air with motes of arcing electricity.

"There'll be a literal mountain of meat to dig through even if we do get through the carapace," Gwen projected the woe of her Divination Sigil. "Assuming Caliban manages to enter the Wyrm in the first place."

"That's assuming it can't regenerate," the Wyvern said. "Earthen Drakes are tough bastards, even the bastards."

“Void prevents Regneration.” she reminded her half-arsed True Dragon.

"Do I look like I have a problem growing back scales after our bouts?"

Gwen had wondered about that.

"Earth Drakes are ugly, can't fly, and infinitely dumber, but they are far tougher and more robust than us upper world Dragons."

Dumber than Gogo! Gwen felt a chill tingling her spine. Not much of a chance to negotiate then. She just hoped the creature was smart enough to know pain.

"… It's coming toward us," the Wyvern announced after sniffing the air. "... and now it's advancing southward."

Gwen cursed internally. That was Strun and Stian's group. Was it because they had received the most Essence? Out of all her Prefects, the grandfather-grandson duo had been the most useful by far and thus had gained the lion's share of her blessings. Now it seemed her generosity had done her favourites the opposite of a favour.

"Ariel, Cali, with me!"

"I'll go on ahead and give it a kick to see if anyone's home." Golos dived, twisting so that his enormous head led the charge. "If you see it attacking, then negotiations have broken down!"

At her best, Gwen could fly just under a hundred and twenty kilometres an hour, which was nothing compared to a sound barrier piercing Wyvern.
Even though she had grown significantly in power, she wasn't sure that their battle would be closely contested if she fought the Gogo of today. While the power-focused Wyvern remained a one-trick pony in many regards, his supersonic attacks, like Temir Khan's "Pilum of the People", wasn't something readily defendable within the realm of Spellcraft.

If a Mage had to face Gogo headfirst, they would require prior knowledge and preparation; both luxuries only upper-tier Mage teams could afford.

Sometimes, Gwen fantasised about the prospect of revisiting the Lich that had almost taken her for a roundtrip down to the underworld. She knew a little too much about Necromancy now and could keep the creature occupied until her Essence ran out. If so— how would an Undead at that tier resist an alpha strike from Golos? Or would it explode into ribbons of necrotic flesh the moment Gogo reamed the skeletal bastard from behind?

"Calamity!" On cue, her Wyvern's guttural Draconic ricochetted around her skull. "The bastard's tougher than I thought! Those rats of yours are worm fodder!"

It took her another minute until Gogo and the Wyrm came into view. She was still a fair distance away, yet already, her heart sank like a Land Shark into quicksand.

The elder Afaa al-Halak was a God-damned tunnel boring engine, a living Bertha blasting across the desert, with only its enormous head and the occasional segment dipping above the seemingly liquid sand. From the air, its scale boggled the mind, for the only other being which left such a wake was Almudj, whose aftermath she had witnessed a lifetime ago at the Royal National.

Comparatively, her private jet sized Wyvern was a flying lizard harassing the back of a black Angus Auroch.

Her mind struggled to conceive the prospect of fighting an elemental force of nature.

Gliding on currents of air flying off the Sand Wyrm's silica-polished carapace, Golos lifted into the air and met her mid-way.

"You couldn't push through the chitin?" Gwen's grim lips were glum from the frigid, desert air.

Her Wyvern pointed a claw-tip toward a chunk of armour lying somewhere half-buried in the sand the size of a car. "I think that's the first of a few layers. Also, the damned thing can grow armour back quicker than I could peel it."

"… Fuck." Gwen felt her temple throb. The Sand Wyrm wasn't fast, but it was tireless. If Golos couldn't break the thing open, there was little chance she could do anything either. Monsters innately possessed magic resistance, meaning her sorcery could only do so much against a creature like Golos. For a brute at the scale of the Wyrm, she might eventually succeed with Void magic, but by then, Christmas may have come and gone, the war would be over, and Evee would need to go home to her Rectrix. "Does it talk?"

"I tried. Watch." Golos sucked in a lungful of electrified air. "Haug Wux! Xideevdru! Renthisj Svern!"

Her Wyvern's Draconic insults visibly tore through the air, demonstrating that harsh words could indeed kill.

The Sand Wyrm slowed for a fraction of a second.

"I think it—" Gwen spoke.

The Sand Wyrm moved on.

"— Fuck. What does that mean?" She turned to her Wyvern for unlikely wisdom.

Gogo shrugged mid-flight. "Maybe it's slow?"

"How about I'll try." Gwen mulled over the possibilities for a few seconds, then made her decision. Gathering her Lightning mana, she willed herself to speak in faux-Draconic provided by her Translation Stone, then channelled the words into an Almudj-powered Thundering Shatter.

"OI! FATHERLESS IMBECILE! DOTH THOU KNOW HOW TO SPEAK?"

She wasn't exactly sure of the etiquette when addressing lowly "bastards" and so had to follow her Planar Ally's lead.

The shockwaves of her Essence-enhanced spell, which was enough to overpower portable Walls of Force when concentrated, rippled across the interlocking chitin, sending huge chunks of old carapace flying into the distance while shattering others.

The Sand Wyrm stopped, this time coming to a complete halt, piling up a new dune in the process. Its head dug into the sand, then the lower sections of its body began to form a coil.

"See? Nothing like a bit of Charisma," Gwen scoffed at her scowling Wyvern, then thought of an off-colour joke the likes of Tao might make. "You know, Gogo, they don't call me the Worm Handler of Fudan for no— WHOOA!"

The ground imploded.
The Sawahi erupted.
Her Divination Sigil screamed.

A bullet-shaped head larger than an A380 Dreamliner burst from the rising dune with the pressure of a volcanic eruption, slowly rotating in place while its seams peeled back like a three-petalled flower. In slow-motion and with an insurmountable force, the Sand Wyrm gained altitude with a rapidness that bellied its size, reaching for Golos, Gwen and her Familiars.

Gwen Dimension Doored, then Doored again for good measure. As an avowed worm handler, she dared not risk the rapidly distending Afaa al-Halak being a grower.

A hundred-odd meters away, she observed her stoic Caliban.

"Shaa-Shaa!" Her Big Bird cawed as the whale-like tripartite lips enclosed, locking her poison-pill creature into the Wyrm's maw. In the aftermath, the interlocking chitin sealed the slits, showing nary a sliver of fault.

"EE-EE!" Ariel reappeared by Gwen's side, worried that its sibling might be in for more than it could handle.

"Cheeky prick!" Golos circled after a sudden acceleration to escape the Wyrm's un-sportsmen-like assault. "If it thinks it can take us because of its girth, it's got another thing coming."

Gwen double-checked the phantom sphere of Undead chitin surrounding her body, wondering how well the Bone Armour would hold out against a worm with a partiality for vorarephilia. "Well, Cali's inside now."

She winced as she switched to Link Sight. "Strewth, the tongues have teeth!"

Though Caliban's optics wasn't helpful in the traditional sense, its life-sensing organ could create something akin to night vision while inside the Afaa al-Halak. Presently, Caliban was rolling its way down the palate and tongues, where every inch had evolved to grind flesh and crush stone. Thankfully, the Wyrm was a swallower and not a chewer, for she could sense the undulating maw rolling its walls of rat-swords, sending Caliban backwards into its gullet.

As for Cali, it bounced to and fro as a ball of Da-peng feathers, using its borrowed resilience and anti-Draconic talent to preserve its vitality. Thankfully, its feather armour held, which affirmed Gwen's confidence. Even with the Da-peng's seemingly impressive wingspan, Caliban was half the size of Golos, while the inside of the Sand Wyrm's maw could fit a whole Da-peng from wingtip to wingtip, and again from roof to tongue. Likewise, the crushing component of the Wyrm's mouth did not possess the equivalent of molars, resembling more so a serpent' oesophagus.

"It's coming again," Golos warned her. "The imbecile doesn't give up easy."

The dunes exploded, pouring silica down on the Sawahi.

Gwen waited for the last moment before Dimension Dooring again to safety. By the third thrust, their phallic predator appeared to lose interest, or at least conceded that just as Golos and Gwen were short on firepower, it lacked in other ways.

Meanwhile, Caliban had finally made it past the Iron Maiden section of the Sand Wyrm and was now home free in a pink oesophagus thick with digestive mucus.

Outside, the Sand Wyrm once again resumed its bee-line for her fleeing Rat-kin, crushing the dunes like an arctic icebreaker as it sailed into the sand sea.

"Barbanginy!"

Gwen gave the great Wyrm another thump on the head, enticing the beast with her concentrated Almudj's Essence.

The Sand Wyrm ignored her.

"I knew it! This bastard's intelligent!" she surmised at once.

Golos grumbled. "If Ayxin or Ruxin were here, this brat would know real pain!"

And if Gunther was here, Gwen mused. He could probably slice and dice the Sand Wyrm like schoolboys sectioning a flatworm to see what parts would grow back and what would die.

"Shaa!" Caliban had transformed itself into its serpent form and was now freely swimming through the digestive slime, replenishing its exterior as it went. Gwen had contemplated using the Earth Wyrm form, but the reality was that increased surface area would only mean Caliban got digested faster. Different to the life-seeking serpent, its Wyrm form was best for solid rock, not the slippery, mucus-lined digestive tract that resembled a Pocket Space of its own.

Should she empower Caliban now and have it randomly wreak havoc? In her mind, Gwen had hoped that some distance into the Wyrm, there would be signs, such as segments closer to its heart or lungs ripe for exploitation. At best, a significant nerve cord could sever the creature's movements; at worst, a spleen or a kidney could set the Wyrm to writhe.

But it would seem her hypothesis was far too optimistic. Elemental creatures were terrestrial in their anatomy but hardly required to follow the natural laws her body followed. If the Sand Wyrm began life as a creature fed by an Earthen Core and digestive tracts came later due to acclimatising to the Prime Material, why should it follow the evolutionary boundaries of mortal creatures untouched by mystic energies?

Whatever the case, the Sand Wyrm was now picking up speed. By her conjecture, she suspected it was going at fifty, maybe sixty kilometres an hour, meaning it would catch up to Strun's pack within the next ten minutes, despite her rats fleeing with every ounce of energy afforded by Death March.

Death March increased her Rat-kin's stamina near-infinitely but had limited impact on speed, especially considering that they were sick to boot and hardly consistent in athleticism.

As if sensing her growing paranoia, the Sand Wyrm sped up once more.

"This fucker…" Gwen swore. "Ariel!"

"EE-EE!" Her Kirin transformed into her hammer of chastisement.

She gathered up her mana, then sent forth the Familiar to coast just above the Wyrm. Just as the creature crested a dune, Gwen loosened the reigns on her spell.

BOOM—CRACK!

A triple-threat Babanginy in the form of Thundering Shatter struck the Sand Wyrm on its exposed carapace, lighting up the crevices where the chitin conjoined. As the compressed energy of the sonic spell rapidly discharged, purple ichor erupted from torn ligaments and burst veins. First, a destructive ripple rolled down the Sand Wyrm's side like a Mexican Wave; then, a secondary eruption sent chunks of chitin flying in every direction.

"YAAAARHGH—!" Golos charged in at the opportunity, emerging with claws clinging to an enormous block of jelly-like fat. In his violent passing, the exposed flesh became scorched and blackened.

Gwen huffed, happy at the result but exhausted by the expenditure.

The Afaa al-Halak "shrugged", the wound sizzled shut, then it moved on.

"SON OF A WORM!" she swore. That was the equivalent of ripping out a giant's toenails! Was the Wyrm so dumb as to not feel pain?

More so than the Wyrm's unstoppable health, she could envision the damned thing slowly catching up to her Rat-kin like the proverbial tortoise, erasing all of her efforts with a steady and agonising pace.

"Void Sphere!" Out of both frustration and curiosity, she let loose a tenebrous ball of Void-ink to splatter over the Wyrm.

Its scales sizzled, chunks of chitin faded into nothingness, consumed by anti-matter. Yet, Gwen dug no deeper than arm's reach into a layer of armour some meter-thick, not to mention there was another layer of insulating fat, and under that, far denser muscles.

Picking up the pace, she, Golos and Ariel arrived at a space ahead and overhead of the Sand Wyrm's trajectory.

"Enervating Orb!" Her body grew rigid, this time not from the sympathy of Caliban running through a bed of daggers but from the arcane chill of Negative Energy licking her innards.

After almost four days and five nights, her Almudj's Essence was reduced to fumes, as was her mana pool, restricting her to emergency arcanistry like Dimension Door. The sorcery she performed now was raw Void Energy tapped without the protection of serpent juice. Like the Gwen of old, she would have to suffer, then recover, a process to which she had grown accustomed; a testament to the elasticity of the human psyche.

When Petra had again labelled her a masochist, Gwen had rebuffed her cousin's compassion with an analogy comparing Void Magic to chilli consumption, drawing on the Scoville gradient. In the beginning, Gwen had explained, even Jalapeno was capable of keeping her immobile with debilitating cramps. But, after consistent "Consumption", the litmus for becoming bedridden grew to a mouthful of Ghost Peppers; now, after years of substance abuse, she could toss a Trinidad Scorpion down her gullet and chase the fact with pickled Void poppers.

Most importantly, akin to the sensation of overdosing on Capsaicin, once the life-threatening threshold of Void was surpassed, the complex agony transformed from unfathomable suffering into something of an acquired taste. In detail, there existed pleasure and pain in mixed-measure to each Void spell, distinctly possessed of unique sensations. For example, Void Sphere maintained a sharp Negative Drain like a sliver of ice between one's ribs, accentuating the pleasure of restoration provided by her Essence-soaked body. Comparatively, spells with Necromantic bases such as Enervating Orb seized her lungs— but when the life drain returned dividends, her torso grew soaked with invigorating warmth.

Therefore, what should have been undesirable to the Core had transmuted over the years into an addiction that all chilli-fiends shared. Of course, there was the morning after when one contemplated, like Rodin's Thinker, over the bathroom bowl, but the itch for hotter "heat" had to be scratched.

Such was the slippery slope to which Sobel rode to the fiery end, sacrificing both mind and body. Such was now Gwen's fate as well if she wasn't careful.

Below, the Sand Wyrm passed without incident.

It was a shame that her Necromancy-empowered Enervating Orb was not a physical sphere that the Sand Wyrm could swallow.

Feeling light-headed, Gwen reviewed her remaining resources.
The answer was more despairing than not.
What she needed was a way to inflict catastrophic damage.

Shoggy?
Even if she could set up the Planar horror, how would she put the jack back in the box without endangering her Rats? Besides, there were strict parameters in place for summoning the Shoggoth. If she conjured her trump card at a time and place where she was in no danger, and only to save "disposable" Rat-kin, how would the Mageocracy trust her "sterling" judgement ever again?

Use Strun and Stian as bait? No. That was a lose-lose scenario.
She didn't want to lose her chittering worshippers.
AND she loathed the idea of losing.

"Bloody Petra..." Gwen sighed.

Her spine straightened as her mind settled on a particular course of masochistic action. She had a reason, though. Without entering the tiger's den, one couldn't traffic in tiger cubs; without risk, how could she reap the rewards?

"Cali!" She whispered through her Empathic Link. "Hydra-form! Give the bastard indigestion! Slow em down!"

"Shaa— Shaa—!" First came the reply, then came the skull-numbing Negative Drain.

The onward march of the Sand Wyrm grew suddenly erratic as a twenty-meter Hydra manifested inside its gut and began to furious imbibe every mote of vitality upon which it could get its slimy lamprey-heads latched. Like a seven-headed Potter Wasp larva, Caliban attaching itself into some uncertain anatomy of the Sand Wyrm, its seeking tentacle-tongues piercing the slime and the membranes to seek out the white-jade mutton flesh of the giant caterpillar.

"How's that?" Gwen shouted at the Afaa al-Halak, channelling the stolen vitality toward herself, balancing the output with Sympathetic Life-link to prevent a potentially orgiastic overdose. "If you know how to beg, now's your last chance."

The Wyrm's body coiled and writhed, crashing through the dunes to simulate a spontaneous, localised quake. Dormant bursts of Earthen mana ruptured from its magical organs, turning the sand liquid or solid or creating crashing waves of rolling silica.

"Bastard was hiding his talents!" Golos' voice stabbed her teaming brain like a fistful of needles. "Good thing we didn't fight it on the ground, eh? Calamity—"

Her skull buzzed like a knocked nest of hornets. From inside the Wyrm, Caliban's hydra-heads dug in, boring into the flesh, seeking out the creature's mana veins, trying to ascertain the whereabouts of its Core. At the same time, Gwen could feel her body tingling with overstimulation, particularly her sticky dermis, which shared some of Caliban's senses. The concentration of the acid surrounding her creature had grown significantly more potent, and parts of her Hydra's lower body were already failing to keep up with the dissolution rate. At the same time, the Sand Wyrm's rapid regeneration kept Caliban from meaningful ingress.

She needed to apply more pressure on the bastard.
They were locked now in a deadly balance, and for her to triumph, one of them had to up the ante.

"Gogo," she called to her Wyvern, instantly transferring her plans through a series of empathic impressions. "I am going to try and invade the worm."

Golos dipped his enormous head. "Where?"

"There, punch a hole big enough for me to land." She gestured to a section of the writhing Afaa al-Halak. "I can't enter through its mouth, but if I can break into a part of its body where it can't get me, I'll gift it with enough of Cali's mates to matter."

The Wyvern's arrogant mug grew strangely severe. "Calamity… you disgust me."

"I just hope this dumb-ass will give up before it's too late." Gwen drew in a deep breath.

"I'll keep it distracted by insulting its lack of ancestors," Golos promised with a cruel smirk.

"Ready?" Gwen shook out her body. Hopefully, what she had planned wasn't going to hurt too much. "Start the fireworks, Big Guy."

Her Wyvern responded by turning in a great arc until he drew enough distance for a supersonic approach. At an optimal range, the creature opened its maw, gathered its innate mana, then—

"LOREAT—!" The lightning-charged Dragon Breath, empowered by Golos' growing mastery of Dragon speech, beamed through the night, illuminating half the desert, turning dunes to shadowy mountains as it struck the carapace of the Sand Wyrm. The section afflicted by Golos' best efforts glowed red hot as the extravagant energy obliterated the Wym's magical resistance, cooking its flesh, then—

Her Wyvern struck, removing the crispy layers of armour entirely.

"BLADE BARRIER!" Gwen's follow-up was instant.
Through stacked feats of Spellshaping, Gwen condensed the original wall of inky Void Blades into something resembling an inverse semi-sphere dome, manifesting just inside the wound.

The spell fatigue that simultaneously struck felt like Golos clipping the side of her head with his tail club. If Magister Patil were present, the sorceress would have scoffed.

"GUUUAAARRRRL—" Finally, their stoic victim made a sound that indicated the limits of its pain tolerance. Before the Wyrm could halt its body, her Blade Barrier gauged out a lesion the size of a bi-lane swimming pool long enough to do laps. At the same time, even as the afflicted flesh stanched its bleeding, it grew tumorous with scabs spurting purple blood, signifying that her Void matter had corrupted the Wyrm's regeneration.

"Dimension Door!" Gwen executed the next stage of her plan, arriving inside the wound with a splash of Void as neighbouring interlocking plates began to converge, sealing off the open area to prevent further assault.

Without delay, she activated all of her defences.

Sanguine Mantle.
Bone Armour.
Gunther Shield.

Her world instantly reduced to the darkened interior of a Void Egg.

For what she was about to perform, she had no idea how the worm would counter, though she could imagine the creature leaping through the air to land on its "bedsore", attempt to bust her like a bloated tick.

"Quickened Elemental Swarm!"

The meta-magic for rapid manifestation of spells usually applied to sorcery with direct cause and effect. In the case of Elemental Swarm, "Quicken" maximised her rate of Conjuration from the get-go, averting the ramp-up but placing an ill-advised burden on her body.

Multiple portals opened outside her shell, pouring forth her tiny minions, each the size of a River Lamprey, all possessing the potential to become Amazonian Pythons if given the opportunity.

Within moments, she felt her creatures connect with the necrotised flesh of the Sand Wyrm. Though she couldn't see, it took no feat of the fantastic to imagine her eel things instantly reaching a state of existential frenzy.

She wasn't done yet. "Hydra!"

Sobel's Signature Spell possessed an unusual feature. If the Void Conjurer was willing to yield control of the multi-pronged Void Worms she summoned, she could keep pumping them out until her vitality ran dry.

Unlucky for the Sand Wyrm, all Gwen had left was excess vitality.

As with her Elemental Swarm, the Hydra "Swarm" took to meat like maggots to gangrene, digging into the translucent inner flesh, gorging themselves full of Demi-divine vitality.

Concurrently, Caliban Life-Linked the vital forces collected by its summoned siblings, repairing itself while simultaneously draining the Wyrm.

For how long could the Sand Wyrm last? Gwen wondered as the first tremors came. The worm turned, attempting to nix the cancerous growth on its skin. Outside, she could feel the pressing of grinding plates gnashing her Void and bone barriers like a gigaton press.

Yet, within the Void Egg, she was sans sight and sound. All she could feel was the icy sweat oozing from her pores, making slick her arrested body while the vitality flux taxed her with unimaginable fatigue. Her egg was being churned in the flesh-space like a tennis ball in the well of a front-loaded washing machine. Yet, within the dark interior of her weightless egg, the Devourer of Shenyang felt only the call of the slumbering dark.

Would she hold out?
Or would the Wyrm hold out?
The walls cracked and crinkled, then began to close in.
Her mind slipped on something slick, then suddenly, her consciousness began to spiral.



"CALAMITY!" Golos' voice tore Gwen from her chambered cocoon of sensory deprivation. "Calamity. You can come out now. Are you still sleeping?"

Her leaden lids shot open.
Holy fuck— Her spine jolted her body with a shot of pure adrenaline. Christ! Had she dozed off?

"Is the Sand Wyrm dead?" Gwen heard a voice speak. It was her voice. "How long was I out?"

Now awake and paranoid, she inspected her Astral Body, then the state of her active invocations. To her surprise, her Elemental Swarm was gone, as were the Hydra swarm. Caliban remained materialised, nestled in a tunnel, while Ariel was some distance skyward, likely patrolling.

"The bastard's fled back to where ever desert it came from," Golos said. "But it's left you a spoil of war."

Gwen winced as she forced herself to sit, wincing when she saw the red-rimmed horizon.

"Oh, Jesus…" She shielded her eyes from the reflected light. "It's daytime?"

"Daybreak, actually." Golos coiled around her protectively, spraying her with sand. "Well done, Calamity, you showed that bastard who is pure-blooded and who is Edar."

In the warm light, Gwen inspected herself for potential damage. Her Sanguine Mantle had triggered. She could tell that much from the spell's invocation and the expenditure of her blood reagent, not to mention the bloodstains covering her armour. Her Reactive Bone Armour had likewise been expended, which was something she had anticipated, considering the topsy-turvy tumbling she had to endure.

She slid a hand inside her armour.
Her fingers emerged covered in clotted blood.
Something had broken, and then her Sanguine Mantle had stitched her together with glue. Along with the Balefire Golem, this was now the second time she was spared the Contingency Ring.

For a second, she imagined herself with Bone Armour expended, Sanguine Mantle covering her body, bouncing like a rag-doll inside the Sand Wyrm.

"Your injury was from later." Golos read her thoughts. "When the Wyrm split in half, I had to drag you from out under it..."

"I see..." Gwen nodded. Her plan had worked, but she couldn't sustain the aftermath.

Five whole nights without deep sleep had proven the better of her resilience, and when she had delved into the darkness of the Void Egg, the womb-like warmth became the final Hydra that broke the Sand Wyrm's back.

Still, the Afaa al-Halak fled?
Gwen bit her lips.
For a tiny moment there, she had thought the Core of her future Tower ripe for collection.

"EE-EE!" Ariel came drifting down from above.
She placed a hand on her creature's mane to steady herself, then gave the beastie a full-bodied hug, thanking it for the fluffy offering. To see what Golos meant for the Sand Wyrm, Gwen invoked a spell of Flight, then took to the air with Ariel's aid.

"You broke off its arse." Golos' delight was boundless as he joined her. "Ha! I can't wait until Ruxin hears of this! Worm handler, indeed, Puhahahaha—"

There, lying half-buried in the sand, was a length of Wyrm about four to five carriages long, with yet more segments still buried somewhere underground.

"Caliban!" She called in the general direction of her Void monster. "Cali, come home!"

Where the carcass of the Sand Wyrm's lower half lay, a piece of carapace lifted, revealing her Caliban, or at least something that resembled Caliban. Her creature slithered from the carcass with difficulty, landing with a "Plop!" then rolled around with great comedy until it righted itself.

"EE-EE!" Ariel's mockery rang out.
"Hue—hue—hue—" Golos was no less amused by the indignant condition of his once-abuser.
"Oh, Gods…" Gwen's eyes watered. "Poor Cali…"

Without her there to temper and portion away excessive vitality, her creature had grown not just bloated but positively corpulent. The Caliban that now inched forward wasn't so much a sleek serpent with a thirty-inch waist the likeness of a nightmarish, Lovecraftian statue crafted by Surya, but a blob, a Void slug, wobbling with every inch.

"It commanded, then consumed your other beasties," Golos explained. "Then it became like this."

Gingerly, Gwen prodded the Vitality stored within Caliban with a very long and very delicate mental stick. As she suspected, her creature had reached the limits of what her tier 7 Conjuration could endure. Its Astral presence was so choked full of the mystical "life force" siphoned from the Great Afaa al-Halak that its physical manifestation had deformed.

Observing her Void beast, she was reminded of what she had done to the Soul Flayer in Shenyang and how the Undead had reacted to her pouring every ounce of vitality into its withered conduits.

Never had Gwen felt gladder that she could shut Caliban's life-well through Life-Link. If this were the old days, and if this much vitality were to flood into her— Gwen shuddered. No sorceress would want to experience a reckoning of that magnitude.

For now, it was safest to leave Caliban out in the open. If need be, she could command it to transform into an Earthen Wyrm to blow off some steam.

"Gogo, Ariel, can you round up the rats?" Gwen approached, then sat on the bloated body of Caliban. To her delight, Cali was bouncy, blubbery, blobby and warm. "I am going just to sit here and… rest."

"EE!" Ariel pawed the air, gaining altitude with every leap.

Golos eyed the immobile Caliban. "Why is it still looking at the bastard?"

"Shaa—! Shaa—!" Caliban's Empathic Link entangled her mind once more, transmuting her creature's latest report.

"… Are you for real?" Gwen fought off the sleepiness threatening to send her off to another catnap on Cali the Void-stuffed daybed.

"What's wrong?" Golos craned his neck close enough for his ridge feathers to brush Gwen's cheeks. "What's it saying?"

"Cali says…" Gwen pushed the giant Wyvern's snout away, then turned to regard the buried lower half of the Afaa al-Halak with hazel eyes brimming with uncertainty. "I don't know how— but Cali reckons... that thing's still alive."

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Wutosama

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

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