Gwen had yet to be on the receiving end of a Void consumption.
She had tried to imagine herself in the place of its victims after Caliban had its day. As horrid as the creature's methods were, the process was at least expeditious. A quick look into the abyss of its maw and its victims were out of sight, out of mind.
She had thought the same for her fate. Imagining that Faceless's polymorphic spell would smother her like a malicious coat tossed overhead. There would be a quick moment of limbo, much like her ethereal jaunt through the Void, then nothing.
Unfortunately for Gwen, Faceless was the slow and meticulous kind.
Looming over her bound body; the unintelligible, dark silhouette began by tearing away a section of her blouse, exposing her white, porcelain abdomen. The blood drained from Gwen's face, making stark her already pale complexion.
A dark and viscous liquid began to weep from Faceless’ gnarly hands, reducing them to stumps. It dripped onto Gwen's stomach with the likeness and texture of charred wax.
Gwen watched with quivering horror as a drop of obsidian fluid kissed her abdomen. She recoiled; her jaw clenching with such revulsion that it jarred her teeth.
When she came to, Gwen reached the petrifying realisation that this was how Faceless had planned to assimilate her, that this was how its polymorphic absorption worked. There wasn’t pain as such, more so a numbness. It was akin to that strange, out of body desensitisation one felt during localised anaesthesia.
“Arrgh… Arrgh…” Gwen moaned despite herself. The alien agitation of losing her perception of touch was far more terrifying than the corrosive, nerve pinching pain she had anticipated.
Against her most ardent wishes, she began to whimper.
Gwen had not wanted to give Faceless the satisfaction, but how could she in the circumstance? It wasn't as though she was an agent trained to resist torture and interrogation. It was only when the adrenaline of the moment began to wane; that Gwen recalled she had been merely a NoM in her old world; a student in this world, a mere, untested girl living under the protective shadow of her betters.
When Faceless ignored her pleading, she began to thrash incoherently, attempting to throw off the oily substance attaching itself to her abdomen, to grab a fistful of the gravel and rub it into the numbing wound that was even now expanding.
"Hold still," Faceless commanded. "I don't want to damage my new body any more than I have to."
Within moments, Faceless' morphic liquid had reached her diaphragm.
Gwen felt her heaving chest deflate, the musculature unwilling relaxing as parts of its nervous structure lost their connection to her body. Her breath became ragged and hard fought, silencing her persistent protest.
No longer capable of speech, Gwen's mind made the worst of its circumstance.
What would happen when the oily film reached her breast, penetrated her heart? Would she quietly fall into cardiac arrest? Could she be thankfully deceased before Faceless moved onto her brain, devoured her face?
Gwen thought of the others she had inadvertently consumed.
One woman had screamed and screamed until Caliban dug through her chest and mercifully put an end to her suffering. Another man watched, laughing maniacally as the netherworld worm began with his feet.
Now here she was, enduring the same fate.
Was it karma?
What was it that Doyle had written for Holmes? That violence recoils upon the violent; as the schemer falls into the pit to which he digs for others?
Gwen's still functional hands clawed the ground, searching for something, anything, her nails splintered as they raked the loose gravel, leaving bloody trails across the sand-tossed gravel.
There must be something she could do! She couldn't give up now!
She would resist. She would fight, She would antagonise Faceless until the dark slick consumed the last mote of light in her eyes.
She willed herself to open the gate of Lightning, to form a Sigil, any Sigil, so that she could flood her body with the antithetical force, to flush the Void-matter invading her physical form. She willed her Void energy to manifest, to take its liberty with her life-force. She was willing to pay any cost if it meant freeing herself from the confines of the silica manacles cutting her wrists bloody and raw.
But no silvery mana of Conjuration emanated from her body.
No crackle of transmuted lightning, no thunderous applause of volatile Evocation.
Though the mind was willing, the flesh was tender and broken.
The oily film had now moved its way between her breasts, edging its way towards her neck. Already the vaguely humanoid form of Faceless was diminished, smaller; its volume and mass spent to consume Gwen’s flesh and bones.
Gwen’s Blackwattle blouse fell away, her inner shirt and undergarments consumed by the void matter; she became exposed, her white flesh quivering against the briny air blowing from the open bay. All that remained upon her chest was the nondescript figure of a jade Kirin, tied around her neck with an ordinary red string.
The viscous black liquid hesitated as it met the jadeite, a natural material which was said to repel evil spirits. Now exposed to the light of day, the Kirin’s emerald surface became a translucent green, highlighting a complex membrane that was the likeness of a succulent’s windowed flesh.
Feeling Faceless' hesitation, Gwen violently pushed herself upward, kicking out her legs, flagellating the skin from her wrists and ankles. A sharp, throbbing pain emanated from her lower limbs, indicating that in her wild exertion, she had distended something from its socket.
Gwen felt Faceless’s impatient frustration as she made her last-ditch struggle. With another nauseating wave of numbness consuming her thighs, her legs became still. The pain from her injured limb faded as Faceless ploughed on with passionate intensity, corroding the nerves of her body below, while above her waist, it began to reach for her throat.
Gwen felt the paralysis flow over her chest. Her neck fell limp, and her head rested helplessly against the gravel.
This was it. Gwen told herself. In the end, no one came to save her.
Did she have a good run? Was she satisfied with the life she had?
Gwen was not satisfied.
She wanted life.
She wanted to hug Elvia and rub her face into her flaxen blonde hair.
She wanted to go on more adventures with Yue, hear her undisguised laughter.
She wanted to marvel at Alesia’s antics, sharing a Muscato while overlooking the harbour.
She wanted to see if Gunther would ever relent and give in to Alesia.
She wanted to become the kind of Mage that she’d promised Henry, the militant pacifist, the Justiciar who lived by her own rules.
Gwen no longer believed that death was a way out, that it could be preferable to suffering. If she were to die, it would be by her terms, performing a due that she owned and possessed.
Not like this.
Not a worthless demise like this.
She wanted to live.
“I want to live!”
Her desperate voice reverberated through the hair like a clarion.
Gwen blinked, her long lashes fluttering to reveal multi-hued irises alive with vitality.
How is that she was speaking? Only minutes prior, she couldn’t even lift the lids of her eyes, much less vocalise her distress.
Gwen searched for the source of her unexpected vitality.
A warmth was flowing from her chest, quietly smouldering.
She could hear her heartbeat, a staccato iambic rhythm, growing louder and louder.
Gwen became aware of an emerald presence suffusing her chest and growing more powerful by the second.
Her eyes regained their clarity and focus. She looked down towards her bare bosoms, finding that her torso was no longer possessed by the black, viscous tar that was Faceless’ consumption spell.
Faceless was likewise staring at the glowing jade pendant lying upon her chest; only its cataract eyes were wide with dumbfounded confusion.
Gwen felt a tingle as the emerald glow enveloped her. Where her skin had been consumed and corroded, it now began a rapid regeneration that pushed back the dark, oily tide.
She smelled the eucalyptus-scented air, felt the flush of the golden noon, she sensed the cool waters of billabongs and the welcoming heat of burning red clay.
Faceless’ consumptive polymorphic shell slid from Gwen's restored body as though she was a serpent shedding an old skin. Like ferrofluids without the guidance of a magnetic field, its magic was failing spectacularly.
There was a sudden sound of thunder, rolling across a cloudless sky besotted by a malevolent dark sun.
“Usurpers,” A voice rustled beside her, the sound of leaves falling after an autumn rain.
“Yes, usurpers.” Gwen heard herself reply.
Faceless frantically retreated from her, trying to recollect the lost motes of his morphic form. The scattered fluid was crawling towards their host like a swarm of armyworms seeking shelter in numbers.
The motes of sand that had bound her so violently to the ground now quivered with fear, helpless against an existence so ancient and primordial.
Gwen raised a pale white arm from the ground, flawless and unmarred by injury. Gone were the bloody abrasions that flayed her wrists. Gone were the cuts and scraps that ran the length of her elbows, sticky with sand and gravel. She pointed a delicate finger, its pink nail no longer torn at the base, toward Faceless.
Faceless relented all efforts to consolidate its scattered parts. Instead, the half-formed creature crossed both arms and summoned a half-dome that sheltered its remaining body. It couldn't use a void shield against Gwen's lightning, but it was confident that the grounding nature of its earthen shell would dissipate Gwen's electrical attacks.
“Barbanginy!” Gwen called out to the heavens. A roar of deafening thunder answered her call, shattering a stained glass window nearby, sending loose rubble cascading from ruined buildings.
A blade of green lightning shot from the heavens, ionised from thin air.
It struck Faceless unerringly, utterly decimating its Shield of Sand, cracking it with the likeness of a hammer falling upon a fragile egg.
The force was such that a shockwave rippled from the epicentre, forcing the shapeshifter into the sunken ground. A concentric ring of dust billowed from where Gwen and Faceless stood, blasting apart the gravel and liquifying the silica below. The Sand Spirit, who had attempted to shield Faceless, flared a brilliant white before being blown apart by the force of the explosion, diffusing into a spray of white-hot glass.
Gwen willed herself to stand.
Before her body even moved; a cushion of air lifted her from the ground, uprighting her body and settling her gingerly onto the rapidly cooling floor.
She walked the few steps it took to approach a burnt out crater; within which Faceless had weathered her attack.
Within was the pale, mangled, aberrant form of Faceless, its void magic utterly decimated by the blast of primordial lightning. Its already twisted body was now a mess of broken bones and hanging ligaments, languishing in a pool of sizzling silica.
The creature coughed. Gwen was surprised to see that its blood was as red as hers.
“Forgot. About that. Pendant.” Faceless struggled to annunciate each word. Gwen could see several of its ribs poking from its torso. “So stupid… Yue even spoke. About it.”
“Don’t you dare speak her name,” Gwen warned the horrid thing.
It was a strange sight; their roles now reversed. A near-naked Gwen was now staring down at the paralysed form of the disabled Faceless.
“I wonder. Back then, if I had taken Elvia back then… would you…”
"Don't you dare speak their names!"
Gwen shot a spark of lightning which burned blue and green as it singed Faceless’ chest, sending the already wounded creature into a convulsive death rattle.
She placed a hand on her amulet and felt the familiar energy of the Serpent pour from its interior. The Kirin pendant had been a gift from her father, a prize he had unwilling gifted. When she'd first met Henry, her Master had told her that it was the soul stone of a Kirin, though little else. Likewise, she had felt its effects many times in the past. It had taken in the dissipating energy of dying creatures whose soul-stone sundered upon death - but not once had the pendant saw fit to dispensed its bounty to Gwen. With all the events and crisis of the recent months, she had forgotten about it entirely.
“I don’t. Suppose. You’ll spare. Me?” Faceless had taken on a strange cadence of speech. Gwen noted that it was because of its deformed jaws. Without its polymorphic spell active, even speaking seemed to be causing it great pain. “My. Offer still. Stands.”
“Death is too good for you,” Gwen said coldly, feeling a poetic epiphany manifesting within her mind.
The damned thing was responsible for the death of her master, her friends, her family in this world. By that same measure, it had tried to consume her body! If it had succeeded, it would have mascaraed through the world in her form, wearing her skin like a sock puppet!
Gwen felt a sudden clarity compel her.
She wanted to murder Faceless. She wanted the cursed thing to suffer.
The intensity of the desire frightened her. Were such thoughts untenable? Would Henry, who'd thought the world of her, be disappointed if his apprentice celebrated her cruelty? After all, she who fights with monsters should look to it that she herself does not become a monster. If Gwen gazed into that abyss, could the abyss gaze back?
The old Gwen would have shirked from her duty. Hid behind wise words of great men whose wisdom where ivory towers.
But not so now.
She thought of Henry, her Master, and the first time she’d impressed the kind, old man.
“The abuse of Greatness…” she had announced to him naively, thinking herself armoured in the sagacity of her old world. “… is when remorse is disjointed from power!"
She felt no remorse now.
It felt right.
If anything was right in the world, it was this.
“Caliban!” she commanded, her banished creature appropriating its pound of flesh. To Gwen's pleasant surprise, the cost in vitality barely registered against the reservoir held within the Kirin pendant.
Caliban slithered into being, bloated and muscular, a sinuous blight upon the world.
“Shaa! Shaaaa!” Caliban menaced the hapless Faceless. Its slick carapace slid open with a silent hiss, sending globulars of grey goo sliding down its pulsating purple body. It’s lampreys mouth opened to reveal its pink tentacled tongues, writhing within a mouth full of dagger-like teeth.
“Oh.” Faceless chuckled, a mouthful of clotting blood issuing from its torn lips. “I told you we were alike! I told you. Gwen Song. We would be together. One way. Or another.”
“Make it slow,” Gwen commanded Caliban, her iron voice without an ounce of remorse.
Caliban slunk forward and began with Faceless’ limbs. From there, it would proceed to the liver, the offal, the heart, and finally, the sweetmeat that was its brain.
Gwen listened to the joyous music of Caliban’s wicked work and turned her gaze upward.
A dark sun still floated over the horizon.
From beneath it, Gwen could just see minute specks locked in aerial combat. There were flashes of familiar radiance that indicated her brother-in-craft was locked in deadly combat.
She extended a hand and relented a portion of the protective, emerald energy. It was subtle, but Gwen’s own familiarity with the void allowed her to feel it distinctly. The blighted light of the Black Sun was draining her life. It was barely perceptible, but it was there.
She shuddered to think that if the spell covered all of Sydney's metropolis, the number of souls feeding into it would range anywhere from two to three million. If a Mage such as her felt diminished by the life-drain, how long could a NoM last against the pseudo sun’s insatiable celestial hunger?
Beside her, Caliban had almost finished its wicked work. The creature had done well, for Faceless had only expired in the second minute of its inexpert endeavour. When the serpent had finished the last vestige of its meal with a grotesque slurp; she recalled it.
Gwen felt no immediate changes to her Astral body, but knew that her new boon would come. She would take Faceless' gift of affinity and talent as interest.
She produced from her Storage Ring a simple one piece and attired herself, all the while staring intently at the dark sun.
“Almudj,” she closed her eyes and imagined the scintillating form of the serpent. “Will you help me?”
A violent gust of air swept her from the ground. Gwen herself was not in possession of a flight spell, but the elemental air nonetheless held her aloft effortlessly.
Gwen took a deep breath and smothered the rampant emotions running through her disquieted mind.
Faceless was dead. She had her satisfaction.
But she was far from done.
As the wise men say, it ain’t over, until it was over.
It was time for Elizabeth Sobel to pay back her debt of blood.
* * *
When Morye Song finally arrived at Rose Bay, it felt as though he had survived what felt like the twelve trials of Hercules.
He had begun the search for his daughter immediately, scouring the abandoned Cathedral but finding nothing but the flotsam and jetsam of a hurried evacuation. He’d sought for her high and low through the school grounds, even venturing into the surrounding suburbs, but still, she was nowhere to be found.
Morye cursed Gunther Shultz.
“The lying sack of shit!” he shouted at no one in particular. “Wasting my time! I could have evacuated to the inland shelters already!”
As if answering Morye's unbidden curse, there was a cacophony bang.
The Tower had materialised above.
“Oh thank fuck!” Morye muttered to himself, taking a relieving drag from a cigarette he'd cooly lipped the whole while. “Finally, someone’s doing their job.”
As if mocking his immediate relief, the spire of the Tower erupted with an explosion that sent shockwaves across the sky. Bits of its masonry began to crumble into the city below.
“Ah, Fuck!” Morye felt his mouth twitch unpleasantly, the cig he’d been nursing fell from his lips.
He watched the Tower smoke and burned. Thankfully, the fortress remained afloat.
Another explosion rocked its spire.
A dark sun blossomed and began to shed a prismatic spray of void matter the blighted the landscape. Instantly, the trees started to wilt, dropping leaves at an insane rate. Smaller flora such as perennial wildflowers withered immediately.
Morye quickly protected himself with a sheen of salt, preventing his life force from escaping his body.
“Jesus, what is this, the Sino War? What’s with the strategic-class rituals?”
Given the circumstances, he asked himself whether he’d done his best to search for his missing child.
“A father can only do so much,” he announced to no one in particular, confident that he had executed his duty to the fullest capacity. He was in a real-life crisis, after all, not a Lumen-cast propaganda recording. “Such is life.”
Morye incanted a flight spell and again took to the air. He was about ready to launch from the peninsula when a burst of brilliant lightning which suddenly emanated from the cloudless sky.
He flew in circles until he found the source of the lightning.
It was Gwen.
His daughter was stark naked and bare-breasted, clothed as the day she was born.
Morye quickly averted his eyes; feeling the awkwardness rise like an acute case of indigestion.
“What the fuck?” Morye couldn’t help himself. He couldn't even begin to fathom why his daughter would be trapezing around a battlefield in the nude.
He was just about to announce his awkward presence when a black serpent, more horrible than anything he’d seen since the war, materialised beside her.
“OH FUCK!” he ducked behind cover. “Seriously Gwen, who the fuck are you hanging around with?”
Then the thing began to eat. From Morye's vantage point, he could see that the netherworld worm was torturously consuming the paralysed Mage languishing in the burnt out crater.
“Jesus! Shit! Fuck me dead!” Morye mouthed unconsciously, feeling ill at the sight of the live dismemberment. When the creature began to swallow and regurgitate the Mage for ease of eating; he vomited in his mouth.
"Who does that! Seriously!"
Morye had to wash out his mouth before he felt ready to accost his wayward daughter about her inhuman cruelty.
What had happened to his demure, quiet, beautiful little girl in the last twelve months?
When had she become such a delinquent? The last time he saw her, she’d been perfectly innocent and naive. What the hell had Henry Kilroy been teaching his daughter! He would have words! Polite, but stern words, with the Magister! The old man would get a piece of his mind!
Just as Morye was about to leap from cover to wag a critical finger at her face, his wayward daughter began to glow with a radiant, emerald energy. As Morye watched agog, his daughter launched herself into the air, unaided by any spell, and made for the dark sun.
It took Morye several more minutes to process the scene he'd just witnessed.
He tapped his pockets and found another cigarette. He lit it and smoked, inhaling and exhaling contemplatively.
“I am not even supposed to be working today,” Morye comforted himself.
Sometimes, he realised. a man should just be honest with himself.
“Fuck this. I am out.”
* * *
Alesia de Botton was rapidly blinking through the Grot when she became suddenly displaced by the instability of the pocket dimension.
The distortion had caught her unaware, sending her barreling into a space caught between two places.
For the Grot was not a single space, it was an overlap. It existed in the Tower as the heart of Henry's domain - as well as a Dryad’s grove, located in one of the world’s infamous Black Zones.
In his youth, when his body had been young and hale, her master had sojourned to the zone as a part of his adventures. It was there that Henry had met a fledgeling Dryad, gifted her the name of Sufina, and contracted her to be his partner.
As for Sufina, Alesia had known the ageless Dryad since her troubled youth as a rebellious rabble-rouser. She had fond memories of sitting within the Grot, her thin legs dangling from a branch as she nursed a cup of golden mead. Whenever Alesia was hurt, the sympathetic Dryad would cradle her like a mother, its energetic presence mending her wounds both physical and otherwise.
When Alesia had finally orientated herself, the dimensional tethers were already quaking with instability. She looked for Henry, for Yue, for Gwen's friends. What she saw, however, was a distorted jumble of uncertain, malformed vision. The space of the Grot within the Tower was collapsing.
The implication fell upon Alesia like a Cone of Cold manifesting through her gut. Her chest felt as though a Telekinetic hand was attempting to extract her heart, arteries and all.
“Master…” she uttered despairingly, feeling herself ambushed by powerful, unbidden emotions.
In no Plane, neither Astral, Elemental or Primary, had Alesia imagined that her deathless mentor could have met his end before she did. After all, she was the reckless one, the haphazard adventurer, the fiery madcap who'd seldom valued thought over action.
Alesia's thoughts were cut short by the inevitable metronome of time ticking away.
The air distorted.
It was all Alesia could do in the circumstances. The Blink spell, when channelled elementally, took one into a pocket dimension of its own, diving into the Elemental Plane of Fire before emerging once again been displaced into the Prime Material Plane.
When Alesia emerged again into the material realm, she was no longer in the Tower.
She was falling fast, tumbling from the sky while the distant curvature of the earth appeared and disappeared from the edge of her vision. The forward momentum of her blink must have been converted into a downward thrust, for Alesia could hear the air whooshing fatalistically past her face.
Desperately she tried to orientate herself, somersaulting and corkscrewing wildly. The earth beneath her quickly approached. Before Alesia could terminate her momentum, she crashed into the line of trees.
The first few impacts were gentle enough, sapling branches snapping under her weight. The next dozen raked her skin and beat her senseless, tossing her bodily to and fro as she ricocheted toward a carpet of pine needles.
She landed with an audible thunk, thankfully padded by the undergrowth.
Her clothes were a shredded mess, her skin broken and bleeding. Her shoulders and thighs had become marred by several brutal gashes, a crinkle within her torso that suggests a rib had found itself out of place.
Alesia laid there, stunned in more ways than one.
More importantly, she was alone - alone in a quiet forest with no one to judge her, no one to look up to her stoic demeanour.
She thought of her Master, a man she would have gladly called a father. She recalled the lines of his kind face as he guided her, his stern reprimand as he showed her the ways of the world. He had taught her how to fight, how to use her spells, how to exploit her enemies. He’d shielded her when things had gotten out of control, laughed with her when she’d been successful.
Now all of that was ended.
She will never again hear that voice, never again feel the firmness of his hand upon her shoulder.
Alesia began to weep.
First as a quiet sob, then growing as a wracking cry that shook her shoulders and tugged at her broken ribs. She began to bawl like a child, feeling the rawness of her emotions overwhelm all rational thought.
The outburst persisted until the pressure that had built up within her chest was spent. When the last ounce of grief burned itself out, the crisis of the moment came crashing back.
Her teacher was gone, but his murderer still lived. Gwen needed saving, and Gunther was still fighting for his life somewhere.
Her body felt broken, her potion cool-downs spent, but Alesia de Botton had one more trump card up her sleeve.
She materialised the Efreeti Dagger in her hand.
It was a gift from her master, used to tap into her uniquely gifted affinity.
Within it was imprisoned the spirit of an Efreet that Henry had summoned, trapped, and bound for her perusal. It was a unique item, exceedingly rare and precious, an irreplaceable treasure.
She held the blade gingerly and sliced it across the palm of her hand, smearing the glinting ochre metal with a dash of striking crimson.
“O Heart of Flame, Spirit of the Fire, I summon thee from the City of Brass, heed my call.”
The blade became wreathed in a white-hot flame. The fire expanded until it took on the shape of a sensuous female, scarcely garbed in an intricately beaten brass-brassiere. Its hair was a mane of orange and ochre, its eyes two burning coals. Its limbs were full and vital, round and shapely, its waist sinuous and serpentine, at once dangerous and inviting.
The casual observer would have recognised its likeness as Alesia’s infamous flame-clad form, her signature combat transformation.
When no order for element fusion came from Alesia, the Efreet gazed toward its master with puzzlement and malice. Djinns such as these were proud and haughty creatures. To be made to serve a mere mortal was a severe insult, the gravest injury imaginable to its magical mind.
“I want to make a deal,” Alesia declared.
Immediately their surrounding smouldered and burned. She had the Djinn’s full attention.
“Give me the power necessary to defeat my enemies, to avenge my Master,” Alesia intoned carefully. “And I shall set you free.”
There was no hesitation in the Djinn’s choice. For two decades it'd been trapped in the Efreeti Blade. Though twenty years were but a moment for these immortal beings, the imprisonment remained a degeneration of its noble status that it loathed bearing.
The blade of the elementally-forged dagger splintered.
A mote of flame leapt from within, falling upon Alesia's bosom.
Her body caught the spark as though it consisted of bone-dry kindling, transforming her into a torrent of swirling fire that twisted and turned until she became the centre of a flaming vortex. A scarlet tornado burst from the depth of the pine forest with a terrific cacophony, transforming the plantation into a sea of flames.
Her wounds no longer mattered, her injuries became less than substantial. Wreathed in the fleeting power of a Djinn, Alesia was now a white-hot font of plasma, a living pyre in humanoid form.
She rose into the sky and saw the distant skyline of Sydney.
The sky was no longer the same ultramarine she had seen in Rosebay. Now it was tainted by a black sun that seemed to suck in all light, casting a miasmic shadow of Void matter over the landscape.
With a simple gesture and a command from her will, Alesia became a shooting star, tearing across the afternoon sky.
There, she would find Elizabeth.
There, she would find vengeance.
There, she would find Satisfaction.