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The original plan had been to sneak into the dam quickly and quietly in two small groups while the defences had been pulled away by the attack on the valley. From the outset, it was clear that the defences had been massively increased since Clive, Humphrey and Sophie first scouted it out. Their intent had been to launch the operation immediately after their original surveillance. Travelling to reunite the team, meet Dawn and then the start of the monster surge had caused multiple delays.

The newly added presence of the constructs in such large numbers suggested either something had significantly changed or something important was happening. It was unlikely to be a reaction to leaking information about the attack on the valley because there hadn't been time to emplace herds of constructs all through the territory approaching the dam.

Guard squads of Purity loyalists were stationed outside the entrances at each end of the dam. Each squad was made up of one silver leading some bronze-rankers and were made short work of. Both teams needed to move fast because of the constructs they had left behind without eliminating.

At one end of the dam, Belinda deftly negated the magic on the heavy security door and picked the mechanical lock. On the other, Clive and Sophie split those tasks between them. Both teams went inside and ruined the magic of the doors, sealing them shut against anyone trying to go through, friend or foe.

The inside of the dam complex was cavernous, with huge open space and a ceiling that loomed high overhead. The dam spanned the entrance to a sprawling valley and the dam’s interior followed that line in a huge, arcing curve. The roof, walls and floor were concrete, while huge devices of heavy industrial magic occupied the floor and stuck out from the walls. This was artifice on the largest scale; the kind used by cities to manage the infrastructure that supported their great populations. Here, it not only managed the water flow through the dam but the magic carried within that water; accumulated, refined and repurposed.

Plan A, stealth, had gone out the window before the two groups even reached the dam. Plan B, blitz past the diminished defences was rendered laughable by defences that had been increased, not decreased. Purity loyalists were already bearing down on them. Some were clearly guards, charging at them. Others looked to be artificers who served as magical technicians. They were abandoning the infrastructure they were modifying and running in the other direction.

At one end of the dam, Sophie dashed forward while Humphrey poured out a circle of bone powder from a bag. Clive and Onslow stood protectively in front of him as he summoned his dragon warriors and Stash leapt from his pocket. The Shape-shifting little dragon turned from a mouse into a rune tortoise like Onslow. He couldn’t match the full powers of the other familiar, especially when Onslow and Clive worked together, but he still made for a strong defensive bulwark.

Humphrey took out a pair of twelve-sided dice and rolled them in the circle of bone power. Light rose from the upturned faces of the dice, one projecting a glowing green line drawing of a crocodile’s head. The other was more of an indistinct brown blob. The dice flew back to Humphrey’s hand and he returned them to his dimensional space as a column of light shot up from the circle.

Sophie was already engaged with the approaching guards while Clive and the two Onslows were blasting magical attacks past her. Behind them, monsters were emerging from the light of Humphrey’s summoning circle, one after another.

They were crocodiles made of mud, anywhere from five to seven metres long. Bone protruded all over their bodies, mostly taking the form of scales that looked less crocodilian and more draconic. The bone scales, as well as the long teeth, were all topped with panels and caps of enchanted metal. One of Humphrey’s powers conjured basic magic items for each creature he summoned.

Despite having legs, the mud monsters slithered forward on a slimy path, like fat snakes or speedy slugs. They left a trail of mud behind them as they moved to attack.

The guards had the numbers initially but the tables quickly turned as twenty of Humphrey’s dragon bone mud crocodiles filled even the huge floor space of the dam’s voluminous interior.

The crocodiles didn’t just clamp onto the dam guards but dragged them to the ground and into a death roll, sucking them into the mud of their elemental bodies. In doing so, the bony scales passed through the bodies of the guards, who disappeared into the creatures and didn't come back out. Each monster had to pause and digest before moving onto the next victim.

Only the bronze-rank Purity loyalists suffered this fate, although that was most of the guards. The silver-rankers amongst them were strong enough to fend off or avoid the sluggish monsters, despite there being so many. Humphrey, Sophie and Clive were much harder to avoid.

At the other end of the dam, Belinda was taking frontline duties while Gary summoned an ally of his own. Using her ability to grow larger and stronger, she called up the heavy weapons and armour Gary had forged for her. Her echo spirit familiar, named Gemini at Jason’s suggestion, mimicked her form and gear as it stood beside her. No longer bound by its iron-rank limitations, Gemini now had physical substance and could even emulate some of Belinda’s abilities.

Behind the pair, Gary was calling out his own summoned entity. A singular entity, compared to Humphrey's small army, Gary's forge golem was a towering edifice of crude iron. A white-yellow glow shone from between the heavy panels that made up its lumbering body. It was neither quick nor agile, but it was massive, at almost twice Gary's height. While it was every bit as strong and resilient as it looked, more impressive was its most powerful attack. The panels on its chest opened up to reveal a cavity full of molten metal it could spray over enemies.

***

“This is wrong,” Clive said as he looked over a large device.

They had partially fought their way along the dam and Clive had stopped to sabotage a large piece of equipment that looked like an industrial pump into which someone had stabbed a bunch of huge crystals.

“You can’t sabotage it?” Humphrey called back from amidst the ongoing combat. His summons were still fighting more of the Purity loyalist guards, alongside Sophie and Humphrey himself.

“I can sabotage it, sure,” Clive said. “But this isn’t doing what we thought it was. Not just that, anyway.”

Humphrey drew back from the fight to speak with Clive, leaving Sophie and his monsters to hold the line.

“What do you mean?” Humphrey asked.

“Oh, yeah, boys,” Sophie yelled from the front, even as she continued acrobatically beating on the enemy. “This is a great time to stop for a chat!”

“Have you noticed that these guards are fighting tooth and nail, even though they're clearly outmatched?” Clive asked.

A guard flew through the air, landing on the ground next to Clive. Immediately after, Sophie landed on the guard in a mount position and started beating him in the face.

“No,” she said. “I didn’t notice that at all.”

She backflipped off the guard, then kicked him derisively in the head before disappearing back into the melee.

“I think that whatever they’re doing here,” Clive said, “these guards are trying to buy time for them to at least partially finish it. I think the artificers are trying to accelerate the process taking place here.”

“And what process is that?” Humphrey asked.

“I’m not sure,” Clive said. “This whole dam should be collecting magic and using it to hide the valley and the Purity loyalists in it. That’s only consuming part of the collected magic, however; the rest is being collected and funnelled somewhere else.”

“For what?”

“I don’t know,” Clive said. “Somehow, though, even more power has started coming in from the valley, on top of what’s being drawn from the river. I’m not sure of the source but there’s something off about it.”

“Off?”

“How many times can I say I don’t know,” Clive said. “I'd have to examine this setup for longer to figure out what's happening here.”

“Oh sure,” Sophie said as she sprang off the wall and kicked three people in the head before landing. “Take your time; it’s fine.”

“Actually, it's not,” Clive said. “Give me a moment to sabotage this and then we should get to the main infrastructure hub at the centre of the dam as quickly as possible. We can’t just stand around.”

“ARE YOU KIDDING ME?”

***

After fighting their way through to the middle of the dam, Humphrey, Sophie and Clive found the others, already waiting. Dead guards were strewn about and they finally found the technicians who had fled earlier. Some were dead while others had been strung up with rope and were being interrogated by Kenneth. Neil was making sure they survived the questions.

Gary and his golem were clearing away bodies while Belinda examined a large magical device. It was large enough that it had clearly been constructed on-site but showed signs of recent and hasty modification. Parts had been crudely removed or added and there were magical diagrams scrawled all over it in chalk.

“Took you long enough,” Belinda said, not turning away from the device. “Were you just standing around talking the whole time?”

Sophie flashed a glare at Clive and Humphrey.

“No idea what you’re talking about,” Clive said as he joined Belinda. “Any idea what they’re up to?”

“I’m working on it,” Belinda said. “This is weird, right?”

“Yeah,” Clive agreed. “You saw the power being drawn in from the valley?”

“Yeah. I figured out that whatever’s going on, we don’t want it to, so I went ahead with the sabotage.”

“Same.”

“What’s the source of power in the valley?”

“As far as we know, there shouldn’t be anything in the valley that could produce the amount of power this place is drawing in. It has to have been brought in since we scouted the area out.”

Belinda walked Clive through what she’d already learned examining the setup, the others quickly losing track of what they were talking about. The pair of magic experts pulled out various devices from their storage spaces as they tried to decipher the purpose of the huge device and its modifications.

Sophie moved over to Ken and Neil as they brutally questioned a dangling artificer.

“Get anything out of them?” she asked.

“The path of the zealot is a rigid one,” Ken said. “It affirms their resolve in times of trial. An admirable trait, but an impediment to our current endeavour.”

“He means no,” Neil said. “They’re not weak, I’ll give them that.”

“That is what I just said,” Ken told Neil.

“And I translated it into the way normal people talk. Why does this group always need one guy who talks like he’s from another world?”

“My manner of speech is rich with meaning and precise in that which it conveys,” Ken said. “Perhaps you should take the time to listen instead of assuming that the people around you are simpletons.”

“That’s not what…”

Neil groaned and stomped off.

“He misses Jason,” Gary said, approaching Sophie and Ken. “Such a tsundere.”

“You know I don’t like that term,” Sophie said.

“That’s because you are one,” Neil called back.

“You can participate in the conversation or go off and sulk,” Sophie told him. “You can’t do both.”

“Watch me!”

Gary poked the artificer dangling unconscious from an overhead beam.

“Are you done with this one?”

“We are,” Ken said. “We’ll continue through the remaining survivors but I doubt that any will talk here. We’ll take them back to the Adventure Society to be questioned properly. They’ll break eventually.”

“Is this really necessary?” Humphrey asked. He had been looking at the carnage with a grave expression. “Killing enemies is one thing, but torturing them is another.”

“What do you think is happening to people when you set them on fire with your abilities?” Sophie asked him.

“I know that,” Humphrey said. “But this doesn’t feel right. Fighting the enemy is one thing. Stringing up helpless people and making them suffer is another.”

“You’re sweet,” Sophie said, placing a hand on his arm. “We’re definitely torturing the evil zealots, though.”

“It won’t be torture,” Ken assured Humphrey, stepping out a puddle of blood left by the man he’d just tortured into unconsciousness. “Torture is, as a means, unreliable and inconsistent. I’ve only taken this step here in the hope of extracting critical and timely information from people who do not want to give that information up. The Adventure Society has more humane and effective methods.”

“It’s always easy to find an excuse,” Humphrey said, stepping up into Ken’s face. “Your questions are over.”

Belinda slid up to Sophie, speaking to her softly.

“Is it just me or does Humphrey get kind of sexy when he goes all ideological?”

“Oh yeah. Jason used to do it too, but he just came off as kind of a prick.”

“You know we're all silver-rank, right?” Neil asked. “Just because you're whispering doesn't mean we can't hear you.”

A blushing Humphrey desperately looked at Clive to change the subject.

“What have you found?” Humphrey asked him.

Clive glanced at Belinda, who shrugged back.

“This place is collecting magic,” Belinda said. “We knew that going in. We thought it was all being used to hide the valley from magic detection but that’s only expending part of the power, the rest of which was being collected.”

“Like water behind a dam,” Clive added.

“This new power source, coming from the valley, is very new,” Belinda continued. “It’s not an ongoing source, either. It came in one big lump and the dam’s magical processing is being used to refine it. This lump only came in a matter of hours ago. When we leaked the attack on the valley to potential Purity and Builder spies, it seems they immediately moved into the final phase of whatever their plan here was. They’ve been rushing to some final stage where all the power from the dam and the valley is being sent out and used for… something.”

“Something?”

“The power collected here,” Clive said, “both from the dam itself and the valley, is being refined and then sent back to the valley for whatever is going on there.”

“The place where we sent a bunch of teams on a feint attack,” Neil said.

“Yes,” Clive said. “We have no idea what we’ve sent them into.”

“What about the original plan?” Humphrey asked. “Can we still use the power flowing through here to blow the dam up and flood the valley? The team leaders all have magical devices to shield their teams from the floodwaters. Won’t that stop whatever the Purity church is up to?”

“Even if we don’t know what they’re doing,” Neil said, “I’m fairly certain that stopping it is good for us.”

“There’s not enough power left to destroy the dam,” Belinda said. “They’ve been sending it all into the valley for whatever it is they’re doing. We can’t repurpose that power from here anymore.”

“What can we do?” Humphrey asked.

“Well,” Clive said, “we think they couldn’t avoid needing this central device here to regulate the magic being fed to whatever is happening in the valley. We can’t redirect it, but we could potentially disrupt it.”

“So, we could just hit this big magic thing a bunch,” Sophie said.

“We don’t know what that would do,” Clive said.

“We know that it would make whatever’s going on down there not go the way they want,” Belinda said. “I like the hitting it a bunch plan.”

“Again,” Clive said, “we don’t know what that will do. It’s reckless.”

“As is failing to act at all,” Ken said.

“It’s happening right now, right?” Gary asked. “If we’re picking between what the evil zealots want and something else, without knowing what either choice is, then I choose the something else.”

Humphrey turned to Ken.

“The Adventure Society put you in charge of this team,” he said. “The choice is yours.”

“Stuff that,” Sophie said. “I say vote. Hands up who wants to smash the crap out of this thing?”

Her hand was joined in the air by Neil, Gary and Belinda.

“That’s a majority,” Belinda said.

“Whatever the Adventure Society might say, your team is not mine to command,” ken said. “Whatever you choose, I shall abide, and it seems that your members have spoken, Mr Geller.”

“Great,” Gary said, hefting his hammer. “I’ve been wanting to hit these big magic machines since we got here but Belinda wouldn’t let me. I'm going to start with one of them big crystals.”

***

In the mist-shrouded valley below the dam, a picturesque rural village was being splashed with blood and death. Purity loyalists were desperately defending against teams of adventurers.

“Keep them away from the ritual site! It’s almost complete!”

As the battle raged, huge waves of magic surged from the woodland reaches of the valley. Transcendent lights of blue, silver and gold rose out of the forest canopy at points up and down the valley. Each of the large magic conglomerations twisted into a ring shape that floated high in the sky.

Streams of magic continued to rise up, feeding the rings’ power as huge portals opened within them. Winged, angelic beings started to emerge from each of the portals, filling the sky like a plague of sexy, feathery locusts.

The fighting below stalled as the battling forces watched the angelic creatures emerge. The adventurers were filled with confusion and the Purity loyalists with triumph until the streams of energy feeding the portals started to flicker and pulse. The portals became unstable and the angelic creatures started flying swiftly away from them, even as more came through.

Finally, the portals exploded. Violent eruptions of magic shot in every direction, turning angels into red mist and blasting craters in the ground. Adventurers and Purity faithful alike fled from wild blasts of magic shrieking through the air and thundering into the ground. Everything turned to chaos and destruction as the ground was thrown up in clouds of dirt, shattered houses and trees. Ear-tearing explosions smashed into the people on the ground and the angelic creatures in the air, their broken bodies raining from the sky.

Eventually, the magic faded. The survivors had escaped; adventurers and Purity loyalists on the ground and the angelic creatures through the sky. Dust clouds still lingered, most of the village and the surrounding woods now a devastated moonscape of craters and desolation.

Inside some of the craters, people started regaining consciousness, naked and hairless. These were not survivors of the battle, instead somehow left behind by the wild explosions triggered by the breaking of the portal rings.

One of these people was a man with chocolate skin and a pro-wrestler physique. He came to, the dirt scattered over him falling away as he stumbled groggily onto his feet. Looking himself over, he saw his nakedness and ran his hands over his bald head. He talked to himself, disoriented, his high-pitched voice not matching his imposing physique.

“What the hell, bro? I’m in the nicki-noo.”

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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