A Second Generation Whateley Academy Adventure
Lady of the Ring
Saturday, November 5, 2016 - 7:30 pm
The tunnels, (B4)
Shisa moved carefully down the stairs, though not without any little trepidation as the access to the fourth basement was markedly different. The once plain concrete surface of the steps was replaced by unpolished stone bricks that were much like one would expect to find within a more antique building. They circled their way down a room in what could be confused as the inside of a winding keep, moving closer towards a floor that was devoid of anything but a door of wood and iron.
Just before the final steps, Shisa paused. Her ears perked up. “The ring… moving again!”
Caro cursed. That could only mean someone or something was wearing it, meaning another fight ahead. As she reached the ground floor, she took quick stock of her items and the spells she had in her book that she could access to. A part of her was cursing that she didn’t have many more spells at the ready. Maybe a more offensive spell in case she and Morgana got separated, as it turned out to be the case. After all, she couldn’t rely on Shisa forever.
There was the dragon spell curse she’d used during the Bohemian’s underground arena event but she quickly decided against it. Not only had she forgotten about the marker for the spell, but she also doubted it would be of much use up against the ring of the fire plane. So instead, she decided to make up her own type of spell with a small rubber band ball.
“Thrown forth, you won’t miss your target,
The hottest body present you’ll try and get,
Body shreds and bends, thirsty vines reach,
To hold arms and legs is what I beseech,”
“Fire and flames won’t burn your rubber,
Even if as it tries, my mana is your buffer,
Ten drops of mana will be your strength,
Burn one every turn of the clock as length,”
“A spell I thought of at the moment,” Caro muttered. “Might be a little crude… but, hopefully it’ll end whatever combat lies again.”
“No use be-fore?” Shisa asked.
“Against Firestep? I didn’t think of it at the time, and I planned to rely on Morgana, while using my spells for support.”
“Want me to re-use spells?” Caro said as she approached the door, as she looked at the items in her hand. “Grimma doesn’t encourage me to use the same spell over and over… usually I get diminishing results, in terms of quality, sometimes it even becomes a penalty. Normally, I have to wait one or two days to cast the same spell. And even so, I don’t have many combat-oriented spells, which is something I keep reminding myself I have to fix.”
Shisa nodded, at least pretending to understand..
“Good… now, let’s finish this.” And with that, Caro threw herself up against the door, swinging it open and allowing both her and Shisa into the fourth level corridors. It was certainly different, but fitting the architectural shift they experienced in the descent. Wide stone corridors with low arch ceilings stretched themselves into the dark horizon, with the line of sight broken apart by small corridors, doors and even bars that got in the way of the path, while in other places the darkness had claimed the surroundings in what could be expected to be the tunnel’s, now seemingly dickish, reorganization of the environment.
“No wonder I never came this deep into the Tangle...”
“Huge,” Shisa blurted out.
“I know.” Caro took a deep breath before setting off. “Let’s get this over with.”
“Yes.” Shisa followed.
The two walked down the path, picking one of the narrower corridors to bypass the iron fences, all the while following Shisa’s ring-focused directions.
“Ring come closer. Down hall. … Hear more things,” Shisa whispered as they stepped out into another wide corridor.
“What more things?” Caro asked. She felt a tad guilty that she was forcing Shisa to talk despite her struggles… but she was the one with the tracking earring.
“Footsteps?” Caro gulped. That could’ve only meant that there were more affected down here. Who or what could they be and what could they be doing this deep? Could it be a daring club that founded their clubhouse in the most obtuse and complicated section of the tunnels? A group of janitors? Could it be another experiment that roamed the place, or worse?
Shisa’s ears were focused forward, pointed towards a side corridor, staring deep in the distance with her attention lured in by the magical forces of the ring resonating with her earring. However, as her attention ever so subtly shifted to the side, she immediately realized there were even louder steps close by. “Coming!”
Caro raised her hand to the side alleyway Shisa pointed at. The rubber band ball was raised in preparation but was, in turn, lowered in surprise when she spotted a familiar figure emerge first from around the corner.
“Gwen?” she gasped, taking a step back as her friend from Poe emerged into the corridor, catching her breath.
“Caro? Caro!” The girl sounded relieved. “We’ve been looking for you.”
“We?” Caro repeated as, right after, a boy emerged from the narrow corridor with the same urgency as Gwen, stumbling desperate for a reprieve as if something was chasing them. Caro didn’t feel like she’d seen him before, so she guessed he was one of the new freshmen. He looked quite strong and athletic for his age. Judging by the bottle of water strapped to his belt, maybe he was someone who worked out regularly, but somehow got trapped in the tunnels… at least that was her best guess. But then she noticed that his container was full, rather than half-used.
“I think… I think we lost them… Hi,” he said, composing himself from catching his breath as he realized he’d come across more people in this maze. Briefly, he took in their appearance, noting the horn circlet around Caro’s head and the large cat trying to hide behind her legs.
“Lost who? What are you talking about? Who were you running from and who is this?” Caro asked Gwen.
“Long story,” Gwen muttered. “You?”
“Equally,” Caro agreed. “Can you make it brief?”
“We came for you, didn’t find you, ended here and ran into Vic.”
“Vic?” Caro repeated in her mind a couple of times until she connected it to her friend’s recent incident. “He’s the one who,” she was about to say when she noticed Gwen’s raised hand, asking her to stop. “Alright… um and what is he doing here?”
“He… he got lost… I ran into him,” Gwen continued, looking behind back into the alleyway they came from, frowning in confusion for a moment. “And then we got chased by fire zombies… who don’t appear to be following us anymore?”
Both Shisa and Caro stiffened at the mention. “Wait… Did you say fire zombies? Those aren’t real… never mind… are they by chance followed by a girl dressed in a goth outfit?”
Gwen shook her head. “It’s a junior girl from Poe, Summoner… But there was something clearly wrong with her.”
“Wrong how?” Caro said slowly, already dreading what the answer might be, all the while looking down at Shisa who had her eyes fixated directly towards a wall, tracking something that was approaching them.
“Caro?” the cat girl managed to say to the surprise of those present. “Coming…”
“Oh, this must be Shisa,” Gwen noted, mostly to herself. Her expression made it clear that she would be tempted to reach over to stroke the girl-cat’s head, if they were in a more peaceful situation.
“Well,” Vic said, continuing from Caro’s question. “For starters, they were charred black, covered in fire.”
“Oh no…” Caro and Shisa muttered. There was no question, but the answer came anyway, announced with the sound of crackling embers and crunching of charcoal that came down from the path behind Vic and Gwen. The heads of those present leaned in to peek at the source.
A shadowy figure stood halfway through the path. Its skin was charred black, with only its eye sockets and the cracks revealing the orange magma veins that seemed to run underneath. Its body was covered in flames that flared and sputtered as it tried to clamber towards them.
It was but the spear tip of the attack as, behind it, more moving, writhing limbs funneled through the narrow path. No doubt that was the reason Gwen and her companion had picked this pathway.
Still, after all the things they’d experienced through this afternoon, and despite knowing what to expect, the sight of the creatures crawling their way closer to their position was enough to force the two girls to freeze from the initial shock of a horror movie made real. Caro screamed while Shisa let out a strained mewl as they came in closer.
“Gwen!” Vic called out.
“On it!” Gwen jumped into action, setting herself into the corridor’s path. Her fist pulled back, charging up with her concussive ‘star’ energy, before throwing it forth into a punch of bright force. And as she did, the result was an explosion of light that surged forth like a dancing aurora.
The ‘zombies’ couldn’t do much as they were struck head on by the blast in a narrowed space. Their brittle bodies were shredded to pieces by the impact, releasing their red magma-like ectoplasm into the ground and the walls as it disintegrated in the manifested energy. And the same happened to the next one and the next one.
By the time the fifth body was laid upon the ground in broken pieces, the concussive force had spent itself enough that the sixth manifested zombie still stood, albeit with a missing arm. But that was but a scratch for it as it continued lumbering forward, stepping over the remains and becoming the new head of the assault.
“That’s not fun,” a girl’s voice could be heard as the splattered ectoplasm began to evaporate into the air in the form of a mist. “You keep breaking my summons… I’m glad I just got extra energy from my new treasure.”
“She definitely has it,” Caro mumbled as the undead drew closer.
“Tsk… they keep coming,” Vic muttered.
“We gotta go!” Gwen called out.
“This way!” Caro ordered, taking charge. She led them back down the corridor she and Shisa had just came from.
They didn’t need to cover much distance to get where the enchantress wanted them: the door leading to the stairs up. However, the issue was that the place was, as previously stated, a dick. “It’s gone…” was all Caro could say as she stood before the wall of stone bricks and mortar where a door of black iron and wood should’ve stood.
“What’s gone?” Gwen asked.
“The path up. There was a door and a flight of stairs up to the third level.”
“Of course there was,” Vic said, catching his breath. “Think we can break through the wall?”
“That is if it’s still there…”
“Maybe we made a wrong turn?” Gwen suggested.
“We didn’t run that far,” Caro noted. “The section must’ve changed without us noticing… The tangle is bold here.”
“Well, we’re all stuck here,” Vic said. “Do you at least have a way of dealing with it?”
“For the time being, we have to get you two as far from here as possible,” Caro snapped, feeling the urgency of the matter.
“By we, do you mean Shisa and you?” Gwen asked. “But... what about you?”
“I… well, we will deal with Summoner.” Caro knew her voice lacked the confidence to make it a statement. Dealing with a devisor with no gadgets at hand was comparatively easier; dealing with a freshman speedster with fire powers was leagues more complicated, even with Shisa thrown into the mix. Dealing with a junior student felt insurmountable, especially without Morgana.
“You can’t be here, Gwen! I really don’t want to end up fighting you.”
“Fighting me? What are you talking about? Why would i-”
“That’s not what I meant. You can’t be-”
“Um…Girls?!” Vic called out as, down the corridor they just came from, the burning zombies came pouring in. They were also in the opposite hallway. “They’re coming in fast.”
The first couple of charcoal zombies took steps out of the narrow hallway and began their stumbling run towards them.
Shisa hissed as she jumped forward, swiping the air with one small paw. Those present witnessed three wide slashes that invisibly crossed the air to carve through the conjured undead. Their bodies broke apart into blackened pieces with the red ectoplasm spilling itself out into the air like liquid smoke… or the fluid within a lava lamp.
“Weak,” Shisa managed to say, much to Vic and Gwen’s surprise.
“They are relentless,” Vic pointed out, taking a step back. For a brief moment, his gaze looked down at the water bottle on his hand. Caro could recognize it as someone mindful of his resources.
“We have to find another way.” Caro cast her eyes around for a promising path but, as was to be expected, there was no clear “EXIT” sign. But as she turned back to give the next order, she noticed something: that the undead had stopped their charge, but were instead crowding themselves by the entrance, standing as a form of barrier.
“Are you sure you don’t want to join me? Gwen… Tide… You two must know one or two stories of this group. The sociopathic bitches. Imagine what my power can accomplish.” Summoner’s voice carried within itself a tinge of wild emotion along with the fiery growl of a flame. The junior emerged from the corridor, strolling confidently as she admired her battalion. She stood taller than the girls of the group, with the flaming aura coalescing and wreathing about her temples in the illusion of horns within the shimmer.
“You’re not thinking clearly! This is a bad idea!” Caro called out.
“You never know unless you try. For all I know, it would all be fair!” Summoner emerged from around the corner, taking careful steps down the corridor. Caro was about to slap a hand over Gwen’s eyes when she realized that Summoner was putting extra care to keep her new treasure hidden behind the undead, as they seemed to subtly shift and move around as she did.
“Well, as members of the Future Superheroes of America, we might have to stop that sort of plan,” Gwen declared. She assumed a fighting stance, finding strength in her teammates.
“What she said.” Caro sighed. “More importantly, I made that trinket you’re wearing, and I’m going to need it back.”
“Are you going to take it?” Summoner mocked. “You, the ‘Sorceress of Fables’? How? By telling me stories?”
“This isn’t a joke.” Caro was getting downright frustrated. “I’ve spent the past couple of hours hunting down that damned ring only for it to slip away over and over. This will end now!”
“Maybe it doesn’t want you, just like I don’t want you bothering me.” With a frown and a wave of her hand, Summoner bade one of the charred puppets detach from the front line to make another wild run towards the group, only for it to be stopped as a Shisa made a swiping lash with a telekinetic claw that cut off its head.
“Oh, and here we have a cottage mascot.”
Shisa didn’t answer. Instead, she raised her hand in a very rude and easily understood gesture.
“It’s not yours, Summoner,” Caro warned, but the girl made it clear that she wasn’t paying attention to her words.
“My new treasure seems too eager to help.” Summoner mused. “I could never create this many helpers, but with the immense power behind it… I can let myself go and allow it to make my dreams reality. And it’s telling me that you made it… Maybe you can make more.”
“I’ve heard that before.” Caro said.
“How about I capture your friends? Would that compel you to work?”
There was no glamorous snap nor exaggerated gesture to denote power. Summoner wasn’t like that. Instead, she just gave a hint of a smile as the ectoplasm from the fallen zombie slowly brought itself lower down to the ground, forcing Shisa to leap aside to avoid the mess..
The red substance lit up in flames as it made contact with the ground. It spread itself down as black tar, and black colored rocks appeared out of nowhere, giving the impression that she was bringing something out of an active volcano.
Shisa could only leap back from the widening pool of lava as thin black limbs reached out to drag the heads of another set of zombies out into the open. Their eyes burned above a devious, perpetual grin that made Shisa step back.
“Come here, kitty-cat. Step out of the way…” Summoner said, as if this was a game. With a double-snap of her fingers, the two manifested zombies threw themselves at Shisa with arms wide to grab.
The girl-cat reacted with slashing claws to cut them down again, but she found these too thick for her PK to carve past their thick shells before it lost its physical essence.
From the side there came a flash of light that shimmered like an aurora, piercing whatever it couldn’t push back. Gwen stood just by Shisa’s side with her arm raised to catch the faux-dead’s swipe, easily breaking its bony fingers before pushing it back into the crowd.
“These might be frail… but the heat is something else.” Gwen shook her arm to get the soot and embers off of her gloves. Fortunately, the magma that ran through their veins was only an emulation of the real thing.
“Ugh… Not only did you refuse me but now you dare stand in my way and call me weakling? Well, I’ll just show you weakling.” And with that, the rest of the blackened figures unfroze with jittery motions, the fire on them flaring with wild, chaotic flames that made all those present, and especially Gwen and Shisa, reel back.
“Gwen!” Caro called out as her friend fended off the crowd. “Run! Just get out of here!”
Her friend didn’t argue, but she was too busy fighting the encroaching crowd, with the help of Shisa’s telekinetic cuts. The message did get through.. The next thing the heroine-in-training did was to pick up an exhausted Shisa and push through the crowd until she made it to an open tunnel.
As all that happened, the charred zombies drew closer and closer to Caro’s position. They might’ve been only a few, but they were still an encroaching threat. One of them stepped away from the crowd and came close to laying its fingers on her, only to be suddenly stopped by a pressurized torrent of water from Vic’s hand. The stream was followed by his fist coated in a handful of water, diverting an incoming puppet’s head with a backhanded swing.
The grotesque caricature of a head was knocked off its spine, and subsequent hits were enough to push more of the puppets off balance, but Vic’s own weapon of choice, the glove of water, had already diminished by the third toppling. The heat of the creatures had turned most of its volume to steam.
“We have to go!” Vic stepped back and Caro followed as the summons encroached upon them.
“Come now, sorceress!” Summoner’s voice echoed from the rear of the tunnel. “I too am bored of this place. Just bend the knee, agree to make me more treasures, and we shall continue on to a glorious advance upon the realms of the Amazons.”
No one felt like staying around to discuss.
Saturday, November 5, 2016 - 7:46 pm
The tunnels, (B5)
“So… to make sure I understand,” Vic said as he caught his breath. Peering around the corner, he caught a glimpse of the burning bodies of the puppets about an intersection away. “There’s an evil ring you made…”
“It wasn’t supposed to be evil,” Caro whined as she shimmied up against the wall.
“Yeah… nothing turns out the way it’s supposed to,” Vic muttered, mostly to himself, before continuing. “And this ring tempts everyone who comes into close contact with it.”
“Everyone who sees it,” Caro corrected.
“So I’ll try to avoid that as best as I can,” Vic noted to himself… and as he did, he thought of Gwen. His step-sister was perhaps the only person present who must never see that thing. If the connection were still there, he’d relay the message… however, be it the lack of practice, the fright he got from the faux-dead swarm or, most likely, the magical equivalent of lead between the walls, he’d lost the link between the two of them.
“If you see her raise her hand, immediately close your eyes.” Caro took a pause to peek around the corner, just to pull herself back as the head of a summon crossed their line of sight. “Need time to come up with a spell that can protect you since none of my enchanted items will do,” she added while directing Vic away from the manifested constructs. “What’s your power? Control of water?”
“Yeah, pretty much. Control, but I can’t conjure or produce it,” Vic whispered as he followed.
Hm… and yet this is the guy who broke Gwen’s arm? Maybe he had really strong control of the water. Caro thought about it a little more before speaking up again. “Well… we need to find you something to control and…” her words trailed off as, just ahead, the path opened up to a room that was an intersection between two large pathways. This one, though, had a huge hazard in the form of a large, square hole at the center, with no safeguards of which to speak.
“Woah…” Caro took a few cautious steps closer to the rail-less edge. Below, the faded lights of the lower tunnel made the rushing waters clear to all. Still, this was the Tangle they were wandering about. Caro felt compelled to kick a little pebble down just to see it splash to confirm. “That’s the fifth sub-level? It’s a canal! This is perfect!”
“No, no, no…” Vic was uneasy in his approach to the edge, as if fearing the hole would suddenly widen and the two would fall to their dooms. “I’m not going back down there. It took me way too long to find the exit the first time.”
“Hm… let’s leave that as plan B,” said Caro as she grabbed Vic’s wrist and pulled him along the side of the room, down that narrow passageway the hole’s presence allowed and onto the opposite side from the entrance—the one that had no corridor, a dead end.
Caro had an idea, though, reassuring Vic and asking him to wait as she made a hasty lap around the perimeter. She stopped in every corner and the center of each side to kneel down and, with a piece of chalk from her pocket, to mark the ground with a strange sigil. She muttered as she did, and a strange blue light flashed from her touch as she finished. “First we’ll see if these puppets are smart enough to step around the obvious trap.”
“And if that doesn’t work?” Vic asked as he leaned in to look down at the running water. It certainly made him feel safer to be surrounded by the element he could control. So, if it came down to a choice, he would grudgingly leap down if it meant getting the extra power to defend the two of them. They could worry about getting back out later.
“It’s not ideal, but I want to destroy that ring… and to do that, I need to pull it out of Summoner’s grasp. Down there, I have a better chance than up here.” Caro finished making her walk around the hole, and not a moment too soon as, at the far end of the hallway, one of the zombies wandered by..
Vic froze as the thing stepped out into view. The figure jerked itself from side to side until it looked down the corridor into the intersecting room, spotting both Vic and Caro. It jerked its back and let out a dry holler to call forth the rest. “If we fall,” he said, “you’ll get me out of here, right?”
“If we fall… We’ll find the exit in no time between the two of us… Even if I have to curse this wretched place into gravel,” Caro promised. She too had grown tired of the dickishly labyrinthine nature of this section of the tunnels.
He had no choice but to trust Gwen’s choice of friends and whatever plan said friend had cooked up, especially as the alternative was, well, whatever Summoner dreamed up for him. It wasn’t likely to be nice. “If we happen to go down there. I don’t know how much help I’ll be. It’s one thing to shape water and use it to punch those puppets, but fighting in the canal against an army escalates things too much,” he told her as the charred puppets closed the distance.
“Well, I do happen to have a spell I considered using not long ago… before I got sidetracked, when I came across a ring-wielder in a field of water. Of course, then it would’ve been an annoyance… If the water down there is as deep as it looks, I think it’ll be doable.” Caro reached into her blacksmith’s apron pocket and produced what appeared to be a silvery bell. “The best bet would be to draw Summoner down there where we can trap and remove the ring.”
“And what happens after?” Vic asked.
“I’ll destroy it,” Caro stated flatly just as the first wave of the zombies reached the room. Just like sheep being spooked off a cliff, they plunged themselves into the water. Their bodies splashed high, releasing a thin, hissing as steam as the fires were quelled. Without their heat, the figures easily broke to pieces.
“How are you going to do that?” Vic asked, not taking his eyes off the incoming second wave.
“I…” Caro was about to say, only to realize that she didn’t have the means to deal with the aftermath. She could get the ring, but then what would be the solution? The thing had proven itself quite sturdy, especially through fire, as seen by how it melted through the floors all the way to the fourth basement. So, to draw inspiration from the lessons in magic and what she knew of the source material, the best way to dispose of this sort of artifact would be to meet it equally with the same nature that was embedded within it to break down the protective enchantments and magics that strengthened it in the first place… Which meant casting it into the fires of Mount Doom. Which meant that she would need to get it back to the forge to dispose of it, and she would need Morgana for that.
“It never is that easy, isn’t it?” Caro sighed.
“Watch out!” Vic called out.
So distracted she’d been by the thought, her gaze only focused on what was straight ahead, she missed the puppets that had wisened up and were taking steps around the hole to reach her head-on.
Caro screamed as grasping arms came at her, only to be saved at the last second by Vic. He stepped in the way, blocking the bony clawed hand and shoving the offender down the hole.
“Thanks,” Caro said as she listened to the hissing splash. Still, it was a premature celebration as more were drawing ever so close to the two of them. And, if things weren’t already dire enough, in the distance she caught a glimpse of Summoner in the midst of the faux-dead horde.
“There you are, Caro.” Summoner had gained a more coordinated handle of her foot soldiers. They came in with mindful steps, circling around the hole in the ground as they navigated through the narrow gap.
The hot-bodied beings came closer and closer, forcing Vic to his utmost as bodyguard. Whenever they came close enough to grab Caro, his hand was always there to sever the brittle limb before pushing the being into the water. And then he had to repeat it again, and again, and yet again. Sometimes they had a lucky break, one pushing against another, but for every advantage he gained there was a time where he underestimated them and then a sturdy summon forced him to consume more of his resources. The water glove on his hand began to boil as it grew thinner.
But little victories grew scarcer as, from either side, the faux-dead beings came in faster than Vic could dispatch. Two large specimens of the summoned constructs moved in, front-lining the assault on either side. Both looked much sturdier, with a thicker charcoal carapace that would not break so easily. There was no doubt that Vic was sunk if he tried to fend them off… and that left him with no other way to go… but down.
Fortunately, they didn’t need to take the plunge just yet.
“Brace yourself!” This was a new voice, a loud voice, soon followed by a mixture of a battle cry and a scared scream. The someone who came with that voice entered the scene from the adjacent corridor, the one that opened up into the hole. She came in flying from a strong leap that carried her across the gap and brought her crashing down against the large and sturdy being. Despite its size, the impact came in strong, meeting its stomach area with a fist. The charcoal armor crunched and magma oozed from the wound with a wild splatter. Before the faux-dead could grab the girl, she tossed it into the hole for an explosive sizzle.
The girl was wearing hardly anything, and seemed too pissed off to worry about that sort of thing. The only articles of clothing to survive her multiple encounters and transformations were select pieces of her shirt, and her underwear, which was designed for this sort of torture. She had scales along her arms that wiped off the summoned magma with ease, and curved horns that were simple to identify.
“Morgana?!” Vic called out.
“Vic?” The girl sounded confused for a moment, then with a shriek scrambled to cover the uncoverable.
“I told you it was them,” said another voice, one that belonged to a girl with a long stick just perfect for beating not-zombie not-brains out, as she did twice in quick succession.
The things felt no pain, and instead retaliated with wild, clawed swings. The newcomer had a blindfold over her eyes, but still deftly dodged the attacks. With a riposte, the staff twirled back around to sweep the flame-bodied being across the legs, following with a smack to its rear that sent it careening down the hole and into the underground canal.
This time, it was Caro who recognized her. “Chris?” Not that she was complaining, but the relief was tempered by concern upon seeing the blindfold around her friend’s eyes.
“Hey Caro!” Chris answered with the casualness of someone just passing through. Whether she was just confident in her skill or it was her usual way of pretending to be cool, she was still able to back it up.
Using her clairvoyance to navigate her surroundings, Chris deftly sidestepped her way around the large hole. Her staff swung about to connect into faux-dead torsos or heads, either to break them apart or knock them over. The girl did a good job of stalling and even pushing them back, though her staff had caught fire on one end..
Morgana, who’d kept on fighting just to avoid more embarrassment, pushed the opposing force just enough to give Caro and Vic some breathing room.. “Found you… I just ran back and forth all the way around.”
“I know… hopefully this’ll be the last time. Um, watch out!” Caro raised her hand to point at one of the zombies that approached. Her project buddy whirled around and drove a clawed swipe against it that sent the being flying into the hole.
“Please, not more,” Morgana muttered before turning towards her friend. “Vic? What are you doing here?”
“Trying not to go crazy down here!” Vic answered. “Stuff just won’t stop happening!”
“Yeah… that seems to be a common trend.”
“Add however many numbers you want to your side, Caro. It won’t save you.” Summoner stepped closer to the hole. “You’ll be spending all day Sunday making me a new collection.”
“Lillian?” Chris had noticed the other girl on the scene, but didn’t seem to believe her own eyes.
“Who?” asked Morgana.
“A junior from Poe.”
“Chris, I’m no longer a mere summoner,” Lillian said indignantly, raising her hands to create more to refill her numbers, these ones coming up like bigger wolves. “I’m a commander, now…. No, a monarch!”
“Oh yeah, she’s completely fallen for it,” Morgana noted.
With renewed purpose, the manifested puppets pressed on with the assault, pushing in along Chris’s line of defense. With her staff quickly burning at both ends, the blindfolded girl used it for one last swing before raising her foot to deliver a kick against the crowd. As she retreated, she flung a ball of blue energy at the front of the mob. The shell of slow-time expanded until it covered the pathway, making every summon trapped in it move at the pace of a snail wading through molasses.
Morgana took a stance on her side, knowing that soon the beings would catch up to her. “Is it me or is the ring getting stronger with every user?”
“Maybe it has some affinities depending on the person? Or maybe it’s widening the access it has to your magic source as it jumps to more bearers.”
“I really hope it doesn’t get worse than this… We’ve run out of possible victims, right?” Morgana gave Vic a warning look that spelled out ‘do not make me hurt you.’
“Oh, there won’t be any more victims, because this is mine now,” Summoner declared as she stepped close to the edge of the hole.
“Is that so?” Morgana challenged back. “Um, Caro? Please tell me you still have it… Last time, removing the ring was such a hassle.”
Caro reached into her bag and produced the all-powerful tuning fork. As it came alive in her hands, a tinny noise vibrated the air. All they had to do was get it close enough….
The dragon-girl heaved a sigh of relief. “Good. So, what do we do now? I can endure the fire… but the crowd will wear me down.”
“I have a plan for that,” said Caro. “But first I have to ask… you’re not weak to water, right?”
“Water? I won’t die if I get submerged if that’s what you’re asking… what are you thinking?” Morgana asked hastily as another of the constructs came in close. This one bore hard rocky scales on their arms that withstood Morgana’s hits stoically.
“The time of the cannon fodder is over!” Summoner had a smirk on as new units assembled themselves out of the ground before her. These ones appeared to be small ostriches made out of fire and rock, with heads pointed as spears and talons curved like sickles. More concerning were the legs that were specifically designed to make the leap across the hole.
“Alright!” Caro said, feeling the urgency as she pursed her lips and let out a signal whistle. Around the large hole, the sigils painted by her not so long ago began to resonate and glow. With all the chaos that was going about, no one noticed the soft shifting sound below their feet… but they noticed the hole encroaching on their space fast.
The first fiery puppets and beings missed their step and fell to the side, with the rest following in a comedic cavalcade. It’d be quite funny if not for the fact that everyone else present was also at the mercy of Caro’s trick.
Summoner lost her footing when the concrete began to shift like sand. Right after, Morgana and Vic let out a startled, simultaneous scream of panic. Caro and Chris both met the growing hole with grace, by sliding into it. The latter immediately used her powers to create a deceleration field for all the non-summoned, real human beings, including the currently deranged junior.
They all touched down in the water at the same time, still slowed by the massive cushion field. Each splash and gasp and bob took place within the blue-ish time field. Chris, though, was more proactive. She sidestepped the wall of the chute and, protected from the effects of her distortion, she hit the canal in a hastened trot towards Lillian, to subdue her as fast as possible. Yet, as soon as she got close, she was greeted by a wall of scalding steam from where the bodies of puppets touched the water.
“Ah, hot hot hot!” Chris cried out. Rather than risking the blindfold, she backed away from her friends and allies just as they rose up from the fall. The slow-down field had just dissipated.
“I can’t get any closer… the water is too hot,” she reported to Caro.
“Yeah… Don’t worry, we’re going to have the home field advantage here, I think.”
“Are you sure about that?” Morgana conjured some flames at the tips of her fingers to dry herself as she waddled her way out through the knee-high depth of water.
“No… but it’s the safest thing I can think of.”
“Ugh… back here again.” Vic’s mutter came with a sigh, but also a sense of reassurance that he was no longer low on resources. A lot of the water might’ve evaporated from the fall, but the flow of the canal made up for it, also ensuring that the beings wouldn’t be able to freely move around.
“How dare you do this to me?” Lillian shrieked from behind the field of cast-off puppets and steam. She was already at work, trying to raise more of her crude mass-produced constructs as a front line. However, as their bodies came in contact with the water, most of them immediately broke apart and those that survived looked emaciated. “Caro. I’m tired of this, so get ready to surrender!”
“I was going to say the same,” Caro snapped back as she pulled a silver bell from her pocket. It was an ornate little thing that felt like it belonged to an antique house. Her finger was stuck to keep in the clapper still as she got ready to use it. In a sense, it was almost nostalgic as this was about the same trinket of hers that put all of Whitman Cottage to sleep just about a month ago. Now it was enchanted for the occasion.
“Everyone,” she whispered, swiping the bell down to get it soaked in water. “Try to get as far out of the water as you can.”
“What?” Both Morgana and Vic sounded confused. It wasn’t like there was a walkway on either side of the canal for them to support themselves. Chris pulled herself up against the wall by the gaps on the bricks while Caro brought the bell down for a wild ringing.
The clapper struck the inner metal of the bell, releasing a loud, echoing chi-riiin that filled the tunnel and the area above with a peaceful yet enchanting resonance. The effects set in quickly. Even if they weren’t flashy, all of those present could feel its power right away. It was like iron cuffs had formed around their legs, forcing them in place, keeping them from moving, or even falling.
The water had frozen, except there was no biting cold, no chill of ice. Instead, it was almost scalding hot thanks to Summoner’s destroyed pets, as well as those that still rose.
Morgana tried to join the fight, but with both feet planted deep into the floor of the canal, she couldn’t get the leverage to set herself free. Caro, who had one foot out of the water, was trying to squeeze the other one out, but with limited success. It was Chris who had the advantage, landing her foot on the frozen water as if it was just normal ground and immediately running after the constructed puppets. They barely reacted as the swift girl spun on the path to deliver a hard kick that knocked off their brittle heads.
“I’m coming for you,” Chris called out as she moved forward, carving herself a path through the clumsier charcoal puppets with either a kick from her insulated boot or a side punch from an arm wrapped in soaked cloth.
Summoner knew panic as the sophomore drew close, and she clasped the ring jealously in her hand. Try as she might, her surviving summons weren’t a match for Chris’s speed and movement. The girl would come down to strike them down even before they could ever launch an attack. And it would be just a single strike that would do them in. Their bodies were made of flame… her treasure gave her the power of flames, but being bound by water so inclement that it wouldn’t even evaporate under the heat, her creations became brittle and unable to react.
And as much as she loved the ring, she had to admit that it gave her a huge disadvantage. With the hardened water blocking the construction of any new summon, she would run out of minions soon. No being of her creation could rise through the waters, which were frozen to the point that not even the flames could save her… However, she looked up at the walls and above, and there saw her chance.
Chris had almost made it to Lillian when, suddenly, she was forced to back away. A clawed limb had emerged from the wall and nearly skewered her.
More of the charred puppets and beasts now made their appearance from the side wall of the tunnel. Twisted limbs blocked the path as the heads and torsos soon followed. Unaffected by the water below them, these were faster and much more resistant, flinching but not breaking from Chris’ punch. If anything, that just got them ‘angrier’ as a gout of flame nearly torched her.
“Caro! Careful!” Morgana called as she herself realized that the witch too was in danger.
The sophomore enchantress turned around in time to see a thin, clawed limb emerge from the reddened surface. She tried to lean back, but found herself trapped by her own spell.
All of the surrounding walls were soon claimed by Summoner’s powers, conjuring up her reinforcements and leaving them to fall awkwardly over the solidified water only to rise up with unholy vigor. And more were targeted at the group on the back, going after Caro.
But just as the nearest of the charcoal puppets was halfway formed, almost within reach of Caro, Vic came in swinging with a transparent weapon. It carved through the construct, releasing a loud sizzling shriek and a trail of steam.
“Vic?” Morgana gasped. The dragon-girl was breaking one of the summoned necks before letting it fall onto the hard water, where it sizzled like butter being left onto a hot pan. Where her friend had been bound, there was now a hole where he’d stood.
“I got this,” he reassured them all as he ran along the surface of the water. In his hand he brandished a liquid blade that easily clove through the puppets in a steaming cut. His own weapon was barely chipped… and even that was temporary, as all that was needed was for it to touch the surface of the hardened water to refresh it.
Caro’s spell had forced water still… but it hadn’t frozen it, which kept it malleable to Vic’s powers… In fact, it made it easier for him to force it into a solid, makeshift weapon. He swept the blade along the surface of the canal, collecting water and adding to its size until he was bringing down a large, translucent hammer upon one of the wolf-like constructs. The big, bad wolf was suddenly a flat fur pancake.
“This is amazing!” The boy was enjoying this move up to the next level of power, it would seem.
“Can I get one?” Chris called as the encroaching charred figures forced her back.
“Working on it!” Vic pressed his hand against the water and expanded his influence throughout before enforcing his will upon it. Despite being enchanted, it still bent to his whims, but now he needed near to zero effort to get the liquid to maintain its form.
The stable floor of solid water suddenly rumbled and shifted as sharp spikes made themselves present and launched upward, piercing through each of the conjured summons. A trail of steam followed each execution.
Chris saw her chance and snapped one of the spikes off at the base, to whirl and brandish it as if it were an actual weapon. “Cool,” she laughed as she disposed of the larger summons that had been giving her trouble.
“Vic? How about you help us!?” Morgana gestured down at her trapped feet.
“Sorry, I forgot,“ Vic admitted. Without breaking stride, he touched the surface of the water with his weapon. Morgana felt the stiffness around her legs ease up and give enough wiggle room to pull herself out.
This didn’t help their resident maniac, but Summoner was busy enough helping herself. “Oh yeah, just wait till you see what I’ve got prepared for you!” The Poe junior focused upon the wall, and two large forms began to emerge. These ones were far larger than previous, resembling gorillas with huge arms coated in volcanic rock plaques.
“The clause!” Morgana called out, seeing how Chris carved her way to Summoner with her new water weapon. If they could stall the girl…
“On it!” With the bell at hand, Caro fetched the tuning fork in her pocket. No sooner did she hold it, then she brought it down against the concrete wall to let it ring . Just like with the silvery bell, the instrument’s tune filled the length of the canal, but unlike the first sweet tune, this one was deeper and more oppressive. Summoner let out a startled squeak as she felt the ring grow loose around her finger.
“What did you do?”
“Sorry, but I have to take that ring,” Caro called out as she too pulled herself from the water bindings, thanks to Vic’s assistance.
“No! I won’t let you take it from me!” Summoner cried. She struggled to keep the ring on even as it threatened to push her fingers apart. The struggle didn’t appear to weaken the summons she’d already created, nor put her at any risk of losing control over them. Relief shone on her face in the midst of her struggle as she ordered one of her new gorilla-monsters to bring its fist down on Chris’s water staff as it struck at her. The thing broke and splattered like glass shards upon the ground, only having managed to crack the summon’s large charcoal limb.
The summon swung its arm back to catch Chris, only for the girl to step back. She leaned against one of the stakes Vic had used to take down the larger part of the beings. The moment she touched it, she could feel its shape change slightly, molding into the semblance of a proper handle as the rest of its length shaped itself into a weapon.
“Thanks, Vic!” Chris called back as she felt the thing dislodge itself off the ground, revealing it to be a large cudgel. It was certainly a weapon designed to pack a punch, even if it was unwieldy to carry. Definitely not her style. It didn’t matter, though; she would only need to swing it once.
Before Summoner could have her pet bring its other arm around for a swipe, Chris put arm, hip, and leg into her own swing, pulling the weapon from the ground and meeting up with the monster’s face. Both shattered.
That just left Chris with a clear view of Summoner who was now having some trouble keeping the ring on her fingers. The obnoxious piece of jewelry was now about the size of a small bracelet. “Got you!”
“Sorry this had to happen, Chris,” Summoner said with a confident grin.
Chris’s mental eyes widened as she realized that Summoner had created one more of the heavy units on the floor above, just outside of her ‘mind’s eye’ focus. It made its presence via a heavy charge just before it leapt into the air and avalanched down upon the sophomore.
“Chris!” Caro called out as its large body covered itself in flames. Was it Lillian trying to get them killed, or the ring? Or was the junior letting herself be influenced by the fires of passion and the impulses the power provided? She didn’t know, but this could do some serious damage to her friend.
The fiery giant came down crashing but something struck it in mid-air. Three large lines scratched the stone surface of the summon’s protective exoskeleton. The large swipe of telekinetic claws. At that moment, a figure emerged from the side corridor above, leaping into the hole to meet the summon with the sole of her boot. The footwear carried enough strength and momentum to send the magmarilla flying against the wall where the masonry dented, its shell splattered, and the body fell into pieces from defeat.
Gwen floated down into the scene, with Shisa holding onto her back and shoulder. Her legs had coated themselves with a soft glow of her power that allowed her for a safe landing on the ground, only to realize with surprise that the water itself was currently solid.
“Thank goodness, I found you,” the heroine said as Shisa leapt off into the water, only to experience a similar shock.
Summoner tried to seize the distraction. The moment she saw Chris turn her head away, as if the girl wasn’t wearing a blindfold from the start of all this. Reaching up into the air, no longer feeling the help of the ring in the act of creation, she conjured her own sword of metal. At least that was the idea, but she was suddenly so exhausted and out of sorts, all she could muster to protect the magical ring was a stout blade that resembled a broken knife. Her swing, however, was blocked and her position weakened from the awkward stance. And then Chris had her in a hold, prying her hands open with renewed effort just as she saw the ring start to slowly shrink back.
“No! It’s mine! It’s mine! I will make everyone pay with it! I will–- “ She struggled, fought wildly while Chris forced her to stretch her arm out. With her fingers open and the ring incredibly loose, she was about to lose her treasure. She couldn’t take it anymore and flailed her arm violently, pulling her arm back and driving it very close to Chris’ nose, just enough to make the sophomore recoil.
In that moment, the ring lost contact with Summoner’s finger and was instead flung up into the air before Chris could catch it. And it touched the solid water, just at Gwen’s feet. “Huh?” Gwen muttered puzzled as she stared at a little accessory with the mesmerized look that both Caro and Morgana had been dreading.
“Um… Gwen?” Caro said slowly. “Step back… please”
“This is the thing that has been causing all the trouble here?” Gwen said as she slowly picked it up. Neither Shisa nor Caro dared to act aggressively, as if that would keep the situation from inevitably escalating.
“That is the ring that has tempted everyone it’s touched… Please, as a friend, can you hand it over?” Caro said, reaching out, taking a step closer.
“But… it’s such a little thing? How can everyone go crazy for it?” Gwen said. She tried to sound disinterested, but it was apparent she was trying to stall.
“Gwen please,” Caro begged. “Just give me the ring.”
“For what? To destroy this? Shisa told me about your plan. It doesn’t seem fair,” Gwen said defensively. The piece was on her fingers, as if awaiting Caro’s approval.
“Not wear!” Shisa hissed and took a couple of steps away.
“Please, Caro… Can’t I at least try it on?” Gwen said pleadingly. “Can’t you do me the favor, as a friend? I promise that I won’t let it affect me.”
“You’re not promising to take it off either,” Morgana muttered.
“Gwen… give me the ring,” Caro said as she prepared the tuning fork in hand.
“You don’t trust me with it. Why can’t you? I can tell that we’d be good enough together.”
“That’s the ring talking. Drop it!” Morgana warned as she prepared herself to jump into combat. The quiver on her knee made it clear to her that she was in no position to carry on the fight much longer.
“I can’t… No, I won’t. I don’t want to!” Gwen said, raising her voice. “It’s mine now!” To punctuate that, she thrust her arm to release a concussive blast at Caro. It was weak enough to not hurt the witch gravely, but strong enough to send her tuning fork flying out of her hand. “And I can’t let you take it away. I hope we can still be friends.”
It was then that Morgana launched herself onto the attack, her fists flaring with flames as her outstretched claws tried to target Gwen’s arms to pry the ring once again. “I can’t let you wear it!”
“Please!” Shisa pleaded from the side.
“Sorry, but I’m protecting this little treasure.” Gwen blocked Morgana’s attack with better form before delivering a kick to the dragon girl’s stomach that sent her stumbling.
“I’ll keep this,” she added as she held the ring between her fingers, about to slip it on.
“No!” Caro called out.
Fortunately, the ring missed the mark as, out from the ground, a tentacle of water emerged to wrap itself around Gwen’s wrist and yank it back. A couple of steps away, Vic knelt with his hand against the water.
“Gwen, stop,” he demanded.
“Of course you would be against me… It’s always been like that since you first set foot into my family,” Gwen said in frustration as she fought the enchanted water.
“This isn’t you… give the ring to Caro,” Vic said.
“I believe I said no!” Gwen said as she broke off the water tentacle with her free hand and made to slip the ring on.
A sharp ringing filled the air. Caro had rung the silver bell again and everyone tripped in a grand splash as the solidified water was solid no more.
The fall startled Gwen and the ring slipped between her fingers, sinking into the water to be dragged by the current
As everyone tried to get themselves back up, Gwen pursued her target, wading forward to beat the current and grab the ring. And she was about to, with her hand raised to catch it when—
The bell rang once more, and all water was forced still yet again, leaving everyone in the same familiarly awkward position.
Gwen let out a muffled scream of frustration. With only her left arm above water at the time, she was practically stuck in place. And what made it worse was that, underwater, the ring was mere inches from her fingertips. Try as she may, she couldn’t move any finger closer to it. One scream later, she began to pummel into the surface, sending solid chunks of water into the air.
“Could’ve warned me about it sooner?” Morgana muttered. All things considered, she ended up having the worst fall of the group, with only her upper torso above water level.
“I can’t give you warnings for this.” Caro stood in place at the canals, with her hand in the bell’s clapper to keep it from ringing. “Vic? Get the ring,” she said with a feeling of relieved victory.
“Got it,” Vic noted.
“Is mad?” Shisa asked, with all four limbs stuck. “Or just dense? No feel?”
“I don’t know… Could be that his powers aren’t exactly compatible? So it doesn’t even try? The ring doesn’t even care if he is at the level of a baseline.”
Truth be told, the boy himself was also confused about it. He had no idea why the ring wasn’t affecting him or why he didn’t feel like putting it on. There was an attraction of some sort. Just like before, it reached out to him like tendrils, only to be washed away before he could even feel them… That was the best way he could put it.
It was the only reassurance he could get to keep his mind on the task. Give the ring to Caro so she could get rid of it and undo whatever brainwashing had been done to his step-sister.
Touching the water and manipulating it through the spell’s magic was easy, and soon, everyone could see the golden band move on its own through the transparent surface.
“No! I want it! Give it back!” Gwen called out in growing frustration as the ring rose, trapped within a water tentacle to reach Caro. The fallen heroine went for a longshot tactic and scooped up a bunch of the shattered water fragments. Imbuing them with her power, she tossed them wildly. Her goal was Caro… and more importantly, the tentacle with the ring.
The enchantress was caught by surprise and, without thinking, raised her arms to cover herself from the barrage of shards and shrapnel. It was a hard pelting that would leave her bruised come the morning, but nothing that she couldn’t endure. The problem came that, when guarding herself, she put the bell in the line of fire. Her hand took an errant chunk of frozen water, and the bell was knocked out of it. Bouncing off the ground, it rang itself. Even if dull, the resonance signaled that the spell was undone.
Free to move, Gwen immediately launched herself using the dregs of her Star energy, closing in the distance in the blink of an eye. Her hands swiped down the base of the tentacle that was delivering the ring. With it having gone back to being water, slicing off the connection to Vic’s control just caused it to crumble, letting the treasure land in her hand.
“Stop, Gwen!” Vic called out as he closed the distance. He called forth a water tentacle that latched itself around Gwen’s wrist and hand, with as much strength as he could to keep her from closing her fingers around the band.
Gwen tried to pull away as more of Vic’s powers came into play, summoning more limbs out of the canal to latch themselves upon her. An annoyance, without a doubt, but not insurmountable. She knew that her step-brother wasn’t willing to pour more power into his efforts to restrain her, out of fear of things getting out of hand again. It would’ve bothered her, if this hadn’t meant she might get the ring in the end.
Still, Vic threw himself into the struggle in an effort to pry the ring off her hand, now that his own control was keeping her fingers open and, more importantly, from slipping the ring into any of them. In the end, thanks to the way the water was ever present around her grasp, and with a slight nudge, the golden band slipped into Vic’s grasp.
“Got it!” Vic exclaimed. He could feel the ring’s pervasive influence trying to seep in deeper in, all the more to feel it clearly blocked by whatever had been protecting him. Still, he didn’t give it much thought; he needed to focus on giving it to Caro.
“Damn you. You always do this… It’s always about you, others be damned.”
“That’s not… You don’t really mean it,” Vic stammered, words cutting into his focus.
“But I do,” Gwen snapped. “You left our home and left dad worrying. You then proceeded to force me to keep a secret I never wanted and… when I tried to help you, you injured me.”
“You tried to kidnap me?” Vic snapped. In that brief moment, his focus wavered, and as he turned around, he was greeted by a hard splash of water that distracted his eyes while his torso felt the sideways strike of a kick. That was more than enough to fully release Gwen of the water bonds.
The boy tried to defend himself, throwing a wild punch as he used the water to slow Gwen’s steps. But one step ahead of him, she’d used her own powers to enhance her jump and cut the distance between them. The next thing Vic knew was that she had grabbed his arm and forced it behind his back in a painful lock.
“Gwen! Stop it!” He struggled to speak, feeling his nerves and muscle cry out as she kept his elbow at the limit.
“Back then, I did it because you were in the process of screwing up,” Gwen said as she held the fist with the captured ring between her hands. “But you can do the right thing. Give it to me and I’ll forgive you. We can be best friends again.” She could’ve forced his hand open, could’ve easily broken all his fingers, but she was still reluctant to use her strength to get what she wanted… at least as a first resort.
“It’s not you who’ll forgive me… It’ll be the ring,” Vic said. Despite the struggle he tried to keep his closed fist with the ring outstretched.
“Vic, throw it!” Morgana called out.
It was easier said than done. Aside from his hand being pulled around his back, the only thing keeping him from throwing it was that, thanks to the push, he was now facing the wall. He could feel Gwen’s fingers trying to force themselves into his grasp, to pry it open and get the ring.
Chris had managed to knock out Summoner in the middle of her struggle, but was too busy tending to the Junior student to intervene. All she could do was call out, pleading with Gwen to stop from her assault, but that fell to deaf ears.
“You keep on disappointing me,” Gwen said, her voice losing quality of niceness.
“Gwen, please. You’re not yourself.”
“I am myself!” Gwen snapped. Her volume had run up, her patience had run out, and she was acting much more aggressively.
“Stop, this isn’t you—” Vic was about to repeat when he heard a crack come from his elbow, followed by a lightning crash of pain that cracked his mind. Something had broken or twisted around in a way it shouldn’t have. But still, he tried to keep his grip strong, even as Gwen taunted him with a malice she’d never enjoyed.
“I never paid you back for that incident. This isn’t as bad as getting your arm broken… but you’ll have a hard time keeping a grip,” And she punctuated it by adding another pain to the list, this one a sickening crack in his finger that felt just as painful, if not more so, than the twist to his arm. “Give me the ring! The ring is mine!”
And to that, Vic’s grip on the ring loosened, giving Gwen a glimpse of the golden sheen.
“Yes!” Gwen blurted out, and to Vic, that was the signal. He might still be reeling but he was determined to keep in the fight. His step-sister might’ve been the hero, usually, but he wasn’t. Anything he could do to win, he would.
Calling on the water for both support and strength, he pushed himself against the wall and threw his body into hers just before the band could land in her grasp. The added power plus his head slamming against hers was enough to, at least, leave her stunned.
The two of them fell into the water with a chaotic splash, adding more harm and strain into Vic’s right arm. He released the ring and used his power to push it. In fact, he pushed all the water to the side towards Caro and Morgana in a tall wave.
Gwen muttered some curses and tame insults towards Vic, but she couldn’t spare the effort to punish him now. Instead, she got up on all fours in pursuit of her treasure.
Morgana wanted to jump in and fight but was held back by Caro’s grip. “I need you to stay here by my side. So we can end this.”
How so, she didn’t elaborate, but it was clear she had a plan in the works. “Shisa!” Caro called out.
The girl-catl, who’d for the most part remained concealed, emerged from underwater long enough to wave a paw. Then she dove again below the artificial tidal wave to catch the ring between her teeth and swim towards them.
“No! Get back here!” Gwen tried to get up. She could see how Shisa was having trouble grabbing the ring and keeping it in her hands as the wave pushed her forward. The confident mug on the fallen heroine’s face spelled out how she believed she could catch up to the girl-cat, only needing to make a proper leap to close the distance… but before she could do anything, she was hit from behind by a strange ball of energy that expanded itself upon contact, blossoming into a blue field that slowed down all of her movements.
Her eyes couldn’t cast the glare behind her, not as she tried to go after Shisa, but it was clear that this was Chris’s doing. Soon after, she heard her friend say, almost in a whisper to her, “Sorry, Gwen,” before calling out, louder, “It’s not a good time to mention… but I kinda went all out in the parkour lab… so could you girls hurry!?”
With a muffled maybe-answer, Shisa emerged ahead of the wave and spat out the ring. From there, the ring suddenly leapt off in the middle of the air, as if struck by an imaginary golf club, crossing the small distance until it found its target: Caro’s hands.
There was an air of victory and celebration for both Caro and Morgana. After so many hours and torturous physically and mentally straining endeavors, they now had, for the first time since its creation, the enchanted ring they made in their hands.
And now, sadly, they needed to destroy it without ever having sampled it. And they needed to do it fast, as Gwen was almost out of Chris’ deceleration field.
“We have to run!” Morgana urged but Caro resisted the movement, shaking her head.
“We’re in the fifth level of the tunnels. With our luck, there’s no way we’ll find the way up as easily, especially with Gwen chasing us,” she noted.
“Then what do we do?” Morgana asked.
“Do you need some preparation to heat up?”
“For fighting? It can take me a moment… but not much.”
“Then be prepared,” Caro said, taking a deep breath. “And sorry, Morgana.”
“What do you…” Morgana said. However, as she glanced over at her smithing partner, she saw that the ring was between the other girl’s fingers, close to the other hand. “You’re going to wear it?” she asked in disbelief. It was true that Caro had appeared and assured her that she was immune to the ring’s effect but, could it have been an act, waiting all this time to have the chance to wear the ring with her own powers? No, she had to believe there was a plan.
But even so, after all Morgana had been through, watching people after people fall prey by the ring with her powers, this all felt like a bad idea regardless.
“Just a moment…” Caro urged, seeing Gwen had already pulled her arm and upper body out of the bubble. The ring between her fingers seemed to resonate, asking to be worn as the chance came close. Its creator’s pinkie finger. It greedily accepted the bait, shrinking itself to perfectly fit the digit, and then did so further under Caro’s fingertips. “I’m sorry.”
“Why do you keep saying it? Sorry for wha–” It was in that moment, when Morgana opened her mouth to enunciate the vowel, that the little ring, now just about the size of a large cheerio, was shoved in. It came in at the right angle and at the right speed to fall victim to Morgana's gag reflex. With a hacking cough, it slipped down her esophagus.
“No! What did you do?!” Gwen’s voice was torn between outrage and bewilderment. Shisa was also taken aback by that last part, as was Morgana, whose hand went to her neck and down to her stomach, where she could practically feel the metal accessory land.
“Your fire and blood helped create it… the blood it holds is your own. It felt like the more expedient way of getting this whole matter settled without access to the forge” Caro tried to sound calm and reassuring, but the way she and Shisa were slowly taking steps away was having the opposite effect.
And Morgana could tell something was happening. Her powers shivered, flared out, with fires to light themselves up on her hands and cause the air around her to shimmer. It was her own fire conjured by her own connection to the plane, but in the same way a bonfire was when more dry lumber was thrown on top. It was slowly building in force whether she wanted it or not.
She felt the ring inside of her stomach, and it wasn’t just her imagination. The ring was assailed by the power within Morgana, triggered by the resonance between them. The band of gold tried to fight back, tried to keep itself whole, but it was all over with the first crack. Burst after burst of its contained power was released back into her bloodstream and from there to the plane of origin.
Whether she wanted it or not, she knew how this was going to end. The air around her shimmered as she experienced the worst stomachache ever. Bright red fire coated her body, pulling more strength from the plane as it either sought to release its own power or destroy what was trying to usurp it. The water around her began to boil up and turn to steam.
“Get back!” Morgana had to cover her mouth to block the flames that shouted with the words. The next burst of energy forced her down to her knees.
Both Caro and Shisa tried to heed her words, but wadling in the knee high canal wasn’t easy. They were already feeling the scalding heat around their ankles, and it wouldn’t be long before Morgana reached the heat climax.
Suddenly, the water of the canal shifted and changed, pulling itself from around Morgana’s feet and rising up to form a barrier that hit the girl. Vic sat on the side, just where his tumble with Gwen had left him, with his hand outstretched in concentration. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but his eyes seemed for a moment to glow and change color out of the stress and effort he was putting on raising the barrier.
The wall of circling water reached up the level above, completely engulfing Morgana, leaving only her outline to be seen in between the light of the fire that now covered her and the ripple of the waves. Steam poured out from the top like a chimney only for the lost liquid to be instantly replaced as per the controller’s will. He even made an effort to guide the heated water away from Caro and Shisa, downcurrent.
It lasted for seconds. It felt like minutes. The flames grew bright and the output of steam increased up above. Then came a heavy thump, an explosion and shockwave that was muffled and contained by the wall of water. That was the point where the intensity of the flames and the exuded power began to ebb. Much to the relief of those present, Morgana’s outline was still visible behind the watery shroud. And with that, Vic, near exhausted, let the water settle back and released Morgana.
In between all the flames and high power output, the last remnants of her clothes didn’t make it. Not even the specialty undergarments. They all feigned not to notice.
Gwen, who had been standing watching the whole incineration process with mixed emotions in her eyes, albeit mostly upset ones, suddenly stopped in her tracks. She reached up to feel her head, almost losing her step but not falling. Instead she just stared at the large funnel of water with confusion. “What… what happened? Summoner’s creatures!” she blurted out and turned around, only to stare puzzled at the change of scene.
“Morgana! Are you alright?” Caro asked as she approached the naked girl.
Rather than answer, Morgana puffed her cheeks to stifle a burp. A trail of smoke slipped between her lips and nose. “Excuse me… Could’ve just told me.”
“Sorry, I just felt like that was the best way to make sure. Are you okay?” Caro asked again.
“Yeah… It was actually less painful than I made it look. Most of it was me pushing the power higher and higher until I didn't feel the bother or extra weight in my stomach.”
“So the ring is gone?” Caro asked.
“It is,” Morgana agreed, hearing the collective sigh of everyone present. Even Chris, who was too far to be a part of the conversation and holding a knocked-out Summoner, sighed in relief. “I still have the broken pieces of the ring in my stomach.”
“I can devise a spell to take the pieces out,” Caro said.
“Think I’ll stick to the more natural method, given how tiny it’s become,” Morgana grumbled. “And forget about this as soon as I can… Speaking of which, can you at least conjure me some clothes?”
“That’s one of my projects in progress,” Caro admitted sheepishly before noticing her own attire. Her hand moved quickly to undo the straps and loosen the clasps of the blacksmith’s apron to hand it over. “I know this isn’t much but…”
“I think I’m used to it by now.” Morgana sighed.
“I’ll pay for any replacement clothes,” Caro said, which earned a slight nod from Morgana. She offered her a hand to get the girl back up as she handed her the apron. “Gwen… how are you doing?” she asked.
The heroine girl had her gaze back towards the far end of the corridor. Some things she recognized, from the connection to the upper level she clearly jumped off from to the wall into which she’d kicked Summoner’s construct. But then there were other things she didn’t remember. The constructs and summons were gone and, in the back, there was Chris trying to stand up while dealing with an unconscious Summoner. And not far from her, Vic was making an effort to get back up, leaning against the wall with a pained look as he nursed his right elbow. Two of his fingers were bent awkwardly with the skin already purple and swollen.
“It…” she began. “I…” She wasn’t sure what there was to say, what could be said, because she feared it to be all her fault–even if she didn’t know how.
“Vic?” Morgana, now dressed in the smithy’s apron and nothing else, went to check on him. Despite being understandably self-conscious at the moment,, she still showed concern for her classmate. “Are you okay?” she asked with an embarrassed blush on her cheeks.
“I think I’ll live, though I don’t know if I can do my homework this weekend,” he half-joked. The attempt to act natural failed as he winced and hissed at his fingers. Gwen could see him steal a couple of glances her way. “You wouldn’t happen to have any sort of healing spells, would you?”
Morgana looked at Vic’s fingers and grimaced. “I think you’d probably prefer an expert over me. I feel myself a bit overcharged at the moment. I’d probably grow you another few fingers.”
“Figures… still, it was worth asking,” Vic noted as he stood up.
“Hey!” Chris called out from the back. “A little help? I’m not planning on carrying Lillian all the way up.”
“On it,” Morgana said and was about to take a step forward, but held herself to look at Vic.
“Oh, right.” Vic turned around so he wouldn’t be staring at Morgana’s exposed back and butt all the way.
“Um… Vic?” Gwen called out. “About what I said…” Whatever she’d said. Her memory was not the keenest on details, but she knew it had to have been something bad.
“I…” Vic began but fell silent as he edged away. He moved aside for Morgana and Chris to carry the unconscious Summoner past.
“It wasn’t you… it was the ring talking.” Caro whispered as she reached down to pick up Shisa in her arms.
“It felt like a dream… Like I was just going through with the motions, but it was still me. I didn’t know why, or rather, I think I knew, but I thought I wasn’t getting affected. Even though words made sense, I just wanted the ring… I tried to be civil and ask, thinking I wouldn’t hurt my friends to get it, no matter how much I wanted it… But Vic…”
“You have a ton of baggage with him? Resentment?”
“I… I thought I’d left it in the past, but suddenly I began to remember all the things I disliked about him, and they all became problems in my eyes. It was as though someone was asking me “would you like to get even” and… I said ‘yes’.” Gwen said sullenly, almost close to sniffling with the tears being almost visible over her soaked face. “I didn’t want to do it… but at the same time I did in that strange dream.”
Caro shook her head, resting her hand on her friend’s shoulder. “The ring was… much stronger than I expected,” she said, fully unable to pin the blame fully on herself after seeing how it had affected Gwen. “But you contained yourself.”
“Outside of the feelings and the ‘promise’ it all feels like a distant dream I was having… that is until I woke. Don’t even remember falling into the water or doing that to him. Only the emotions and the faint wordless message.”
The eyes on her friend widened as she seemed to realize a minor silver lining among this huge exhausting ordeal, but Gwen took priority. “Well… don’t worry, it’s over. Just treat it as it is, a bad dream.”
“But I still hurt him.”
Caro was close to saying “I don’t know what else to tell you,” but contained herself. It was a reminder of how unaccustomed she was to actually being a good friend. Instead she changed subjects. “Come, let’s go up and leave these tunnels. I’m really sick of this place.”
“I… agree,” Gwen admitted.
“Me too,” Shisa added, earning a couple of chin strokes from the sophomore girls.