Gwen and her companions were up at the first light, awoken by the Message which began to play on their devices.
“Good morning students. Your first objective: proceed to Zeta as indicated on your map and return with the marker. Scores are rewarded for the number of encounters, the speed of progress and the number of kills. The maximum allowance for this task is Two Days. Good Hunting!”
So the party's first task was a Purge, Gwen exhaled. It was the most common quest given to Mages by Frontier governing bodies.
In places where the Wildlands overlap Human cities, Magical Beasts must be routinely exterminated to prevent the accumulation of mana that gave rise to bigger, stronger beasts. This was because neglect towards the self-perpetuating creatures of the Wildlands inevitably led to a Beast Wave; a tsunami of flesh, teeth and claw ranging from numberless swarmlings to Titan class monstrosities.
After the WWII, Cryptozoologists determined that if a region was regularly ‘burnt off’, elemental mana, as well as tears into the Elemental Planes could be dispersed. Furthermore, the harvesting of Creature Cores, a resource for empowering human artifice, made frequent Purges a necessity of industry.
In a resource-rich Frontier region like Sydney, specialist Hunter-Killer parties set out deep into the Wildlands, searching for rarer game. Closer to the cities, low ranking Mages engaged in large-scale canvasing of Green and Orange Zones.
Before they set off, the party stowed excess gear in elevated shelters as it wasn't uncommon for creatures to be attracted to food and equipment left behind by human Adventurers.
“Marching order.” Jun watched his teammates move into place.
As the crow flies, Zeta was only half a day away. In reality, the terrain involved descending into a gorge to reach the opposite saddle. Still, the party was confident that they could retrieve the objective flag at Zeta and return to camp by nightfall.
“Just like we practised,” Jun implored his companions. “Let's move out!”
Gwen told herself to relax her pinched nerves. Sleeping in the humpy gave her insomnia, the insects kept her awake, and she had a sore back from sleeping on her side.
I could kill for a latte, Gwen inwardly grumbled. If we could ambush a pack of double-shot flat-white, it would be perfect.
The group's first encounter happened only half-an-hour later.
“Stop. Twelve O`clock. Small. A dozen, give or take.”
Christ! A dozen? A surge of adrenaline shook Gwen from her stupor. The group paused in its tracks, waiting for the oncoming of whatever Henley predicted to be ahead. Remaining in formation, the party hid behind cover, staying perfectly still, taking advantage of the thick Blue Gums.
The foliage soon revealed, as anticipated, Goblinoids, or more precisely, Gobs, nasty little things born from rot and fungi, a half-formed, semi-sentient Goblinoid. This area of the Coastal Track was thick with motes of Earth and Water mana and thus, served as a hallowed breeding ground for these little creatures. That was the reason for the fire trail on which the team travelled; every so often, the Frontier Militia sent down kill-teams to ‘back burn’ the region.
Even though Jun was standing no more than three metres from one of them, half his face visibly sweating, the Gobs appeared to ignore him, appearing preoccupied with baser instincts elsewhere.
“…” The Abjurer made the gesture for AoE.
“Barrage!” Yue incanted, and from above the creatures fell a shower of fiery death.
“Ice Field!” Jun snuffed the last of Yue's fires,
The others watched Elvia dig through the corpses for Creature Cores; their healer was trained in suturing and triage, and apparently, also in butchery.
Their first official combat. Ten vicious little Gobs.
Henley reported their body count back to base.
Gwen studied the humanoid creatures, observing Elvia's work. Gobs were humanoid in shape but shared little in common with terrestrial animals of non-magical origin. Though their bodies possessed a skeleton, muscle fibres, as well as green ichor for blood, they had tiny brains more akin to jagged crystal than flesh.
Gingerly, Elvia extracted a bulbous sack, sliced it open, then sighed as she poured shattered shards of the creature's Core.
Gwen choked down a gulp of bile. Even in her old world, she never liked going to the butchers directly. She preferred buying meat that was prepackaged, or better yet, ready cooked.
Elvia washed her hands using water from Yue’s canteen. Without a water Mage, the group opted to create ice in their metal canteens via Jun, then had Yue warm the metal containers.
“Don't worry. Let's keep going.”
The party's next encounter consisted of terrific little insects known as Stirges, dangerous bloodsucking things that lived deep in the gullies, emerging only to feed.
“Incoming! Three O'Clock! Closest to Yue!” By the time Henley delivered his warning, the buzzing din was upon them.
Jun immediately laid down his best Shield, a stacking array of three ice membranes which completely covered Yue, while leaving enough visibility for her to be still casting spells. As a brittle element, Ice functioned more effectively as reactive armour.
The first Stirge struck the ice shield with the force of a spear fired from a ballista, piercing the first layer before hitting the second. The second and third flew around the shield array and tried to stab Yue with its serrated syringe. The detour, however, had slowed its movements enough for Yue to strike.
A flash of fire smothered the left flank of their formation, blasting a Stirge from the air with a magnificent pyrotechnic display. Another Stirge slammed into Yue's Blast Shield, trigging the reactive surface, sending it skittering to one side.
A quick lightning-charged missile snapped the third, tearing it limb from limb. Jun summoned another Ice Shield and crushed the first between the two layers. The second, which Yue had seared, flopped about before finally succumbing to the heat, cooked in its carapace.
With the adrenaline of the moment dying with the embers, Gwen surveyed her party for injury. Shockingly, a scrabbling claw had swiped Yue's shoulder, causing her to bleed profusely.
“Yue!” Gwen took her friend by the arm. "Oh my God! Are you alright?"
“It's fine," Yue winced. "One of its forelegs must have nicked me when it did the fly-by.”
“I got this, don’t worry.” Elvia used the canteen to flush the wound of contaminants. Gwen flinched as though she was the one with the flesh wound.
The Party watched as Yue's flesh wound mended. Such was the boon of having a healer on the team. Without Elvia, they would have had to stop for first aid. Had the wound been worse, perhaps retreat to the base camp and calling it a day.
As Yue recovered, Elvia dissected the insects.
The bugs were better fleshed out, with a full complement of what Gwen expected in a drone-sized vermin.
“Giant mosquitos,” Yue whistled, giving her arm a stretch. One’s muscles always ached and throbbed after a healing spell. “What Challenge Rating are those things?”
“Tier 2, about as bad as it gets here.”
The group regarded the long, gangly limbs of the disgusting mosquito things. The serrated barbs had unseamed Yue's flesh like a keen knife.
“Keep going,” Yue urged.
The group found themselves roving through packs of Gobs for the next three hours, though the unarmed creatures proved little to no challenge. Discovered or otherwise, the critters plod and plough towards them like lemmings, heedless of the barrages laid down by Yue and Gwen.
“Where are they all going?” Yue asked no one in particular, “I think we just hit a century after the last pack.”
Gwen shrugged. Who knew what mysteries the Wildland held? Maybe a mass migration? Breeding season? Did these things even follow the laws of nature?
“How far is Zeta from us now?”
“One sec,” Yue asked for the group to halt. “I am all clammy.”
Out of the five in the group, it was Yue who had the worst stamina. Jun was already carrying some of Yue’s food packs. The Fire Mage peeled off her jacket and tied it around her waist. Feeling flushed, Gwen likewise packed her windbreaker.
“Shush,” Henley interjected suddenly. “I sense incoming.”
The group fanned out, crouching to lower the visibility of their profiles.
“Medium mass, Five O Clock, Fire at wi-”
In the next moment, a grey blur blasted past Jun, who had been taking point while Yue was changing.
“Shit! SHIELD!” Henley shouted.
There was insufficient time to react, and so Jun constructed three semi-sphere shields in front of Yue, Gwen and Elvia. Their assailant, however, had no interest in the girls. Instead, it made a beeline for the being that had detected it - the Diviner.
A silhouette the size of a motorcycle balled into Henley, instantly shattering his feeble mana shield and pushing all the air from his lungs. His world spun, his ribs cracked, and he flew.
The other four watched their friend launch into the air like a cannonball, his flailing form performing several pirouettes before tumbling down like a rag doll.
The grey blur stopped in its tracts, revealing itself to be a wolf-like creature with bristles like porcupines. Its muscular limbs dug deeply into the turf, hinting at its speed and power.
“Henley!” Jun cursed.
“Darragh!” Henley hollered back. He was alive; the party collectively exhaled.
“What’s the game plan?”
“I’ll slow it; you smite it.” Jun spat, weaving his hands through the air.
“Ray of Frost!” Jun opted for his most basic and near instant Cantrip. The Ray dealt little damage but had the additional quality of chilling enemies' movements.
The spell struck, snagging the wolf with an invisible ball and chain of ice and soil. A meter away from Gwen, the creature fell short of its target, landing as a snarling whirlwind of tooth and nail.
“Shocking Grasp!” Gwen incanted the first spell that came mind. An arc of lightning leapt from her fingertips, striking the creature full in the torso, ravaging its body before grounding itself.
The wolf howled, half-numb with paralytic electricity. It attempted another dash at Gwen, but a blast of fire intercepted it mid-leap.
Under Alesia, Yue had refined her control. The edge of her flame barely kissed their companions as her target burned.
By the time both fire and lightning had ceased, the wolf was well-done.
Jun remained wary while Elvia rushed towards Henley.
Elvia ran a hand under the Diviner's shirt to ensure his chest wasn't punctured.
“Can you speak?”
“Yeah… yep, I am still alive.”
“Can you breathe?”
“Yeah, it hurts though, my ribs, I think it’s broken.”
“Aright, don't worry.”
With the other three standing guards, Elvia cut open Henley’s shirt and gingerly felt for his displaced rib, finding the protrusion that was out of place.
“This is going to … itch.” Elvia warned.
Henley tried to smile; his face already beaded with sweat.
“Heal Minor Wounds!”
The higher tier healing spells coursed through Henley. The Diviner writhed; the mending of bone was an itch that couldn't be scratched.
“Gwen! Hold him down!”
Gwen held the shaking Henley by the wrists. Henley alternated between laughing and moaning. When the spells finally ran their course, the party watched a sweat-drenched Henley rise on one shoulder, bare-chested and covered the forest’s fallen foliage.
“Don’t… don’t do that again, let me die next time…”
“Is that supposed to happen?” Gwen and Yue both questioned Elvia, who nodded.
“Normally, we sedate the patient, but I'm not qualified to administer anaesthesia…” She responded with an expression of adorable innocence.
Their devices began to buzz. A Message spell bloomed beside their ear.
“ Group Seven, are you alright? Do you need assistance?”
“No Sir. We have resolved the problem,” Yue informed Sergeant Boone.
“Is Henley alright? His transponder triggered.”
“I am FINE SIR,” Henley shouted into his unit.
“Alright, give me a quick sit-rep.”
They told Boones about the creature they encountered.
“Wind Wolves, they usually don’t range this far up the coast,” Boone sounded troubled. “I’ll inform the other groups. You have permission to abort.”
The party pondered the risk and rewards. That wolf was tier 3, but they had come this far, why not finish the rest?
“We’ll continue Sir.”
“There's no penalty for quitting if you encounter an abnormality.”
“Henley here, Sir. I am confident we can finish the objective and return by nightfall. I wish to continue.”
“Us as well.” The group assured the instructor.
“Alright, permission granted,” Boone affirmed their decision. “Be cautious and contact me if you encounter Soldier tier critters. Remember, this is only a test. Don't risk your lives needlessly.”
The Message spell lost its glow.
“Thanks, H.P.” Jun pulled his friend up, Henley's shirt was still in shreds.
“Got a spare?” Henley asked his friend.
“Use mine, I think we’re the same size,” Gwen offered Henley her school jacket, which the young man warmly accepted.
Elvia probed the carcass of the wolf-thing and came up with a few shattered pieces of something that resembled a fragmented, thumb-sized marble.
The Core cracked. Whatever it held dissipated into the air.
“Shame,” Jun remarked. “Thought we had something there.”
As the rest of the group meandered away, Gwen observed a warm glow occurring close to her bosom. She could sense, through the resonance of mana within her body, a flow of something indescribable.
She placed her hand on her collarbone and found the familiar shape of a pendant she had forgotten entirely.
The Kirin amulet! She caressed its smooth surface. The jade chimaera that father gave her when she awakened - What was it doing?
Catching up to the rear of her party, she unbuttoned her collar and looked downward, seeing the jade illuminated with an inner lustre. Curious, Gwen attempted to identify the mana it was infusing to no avail.
In front, Yue observed Gwen peeping under her shirt, seemingly fascinated by what she saw, her face full of bewilderment. Did her chest grow? Bra too tight? Yue wondered. Why else would she be so smitten?
“Gwen, is this the time for that kind of introspection?” Yue enquired mirthfully.
“Sorry,” Gwen replied, smoothing her collar and patting down her shirt. "Let's go!"
The party progressed more carefully now, taking every step with caution. They encountered yet more mobs of Gobs, ultimately a pair of Goblins, but nothing like that of the Wind-wolf.
Watching Elvia dissect the Goblins was an eye-opener, as they seemed to possess the same viscera one would expectantly find inside a human being. Likewise, the creatures demonstrated emotive expressions as they died, squealing and screaming. The sight of Elvia as she ferreted the chest cavity for the Core turned Gwen’s stomach.
Ultimately, the group arrived at Zeta an hour later than expected, and collected the flag that an instructor had planted prior.
“We made it! Good work, everyone. Lunch and rest, twenty minutes.”
They each produced the dry rations prepared by the school, swelling when hot water was added to became beefy gloop. For thirst, they drank purified water melted from Jun’s icicles, restoring their mana reserves.
“Jun, how is it that other groups without healers could make it this far?”
“Luck, mostly. When I was here last year, we didn’t see anything beyond a few Giant Slugs, Gobs, a few lone Goblins, and some of the local fauna that had become semi-magical. Tier 1.5 would be my estimate.”
“Why do you think we keep seeing these other creatures?”
“Wished I knew.” Jun gulped his gloop. “I hope the other groups are alright.”
“They must be.” Elvia blinked. “Else we would receive a warning message to look out for dangerous beasts, right?”
“Just our luck then?” Henley snorted.
“Could be we're in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Yue appended Henley's hypothesis.
The group studied at the gully below from the vantage offered by Point Zeta. Had something changed? Why was a creature magnitudes more potent than the cannon fodder of the Green Zone so close to their training area?
In the distance, they watched a flock of birds take flight.
“Grey Ibis,” Jun observed. “Scavengers, the biggest ones have wingspans up to four metres.”
The birds were ugly close up, but from a distance, the scenery had the quality of a Namatjira watercolour.
The journey back to base camp was uneventful as the group followed the path from which they came. After the dangerous run-in with the Wind Wolf, they had agreed to take a more conservative approach lest another unanticipated encounter placed them in greater danger.
The team made better progress than anticipated, reaching the camp just as the light was fading. As they came into the semi-clearing, however, they knew they were no longer alone. Even a hundred metres from their camp, they could see the telltale signs of invasion.
“I’ll lead.” Jun intoned. “Wedge formation, Gwen and Yue on the left-right flank.”
Elvia and Henley moved closer to the middle. Jun readied his Shield Stack.
“Huge, Eleven O Clock.” Henley said with a quivering voice, “We should contact basecamp, its-”
They heard the creature before they saw it, caught flatfooted as an absurd mass exploded through the trunk of a half rotten Blue Gum, splintering and scattering chunks of wood as it charged. The creature that bored down on them unprovoked resembled a rhinoceros without a horn; its feet were turned inward, like that of a wombat, giving it two nasty looking talons akin to a gargantuan pigeon toe. Sinuous muscles like steel cables roped its way around its broad, muscular back, which was thick with silvery-black hair that bristled as it moved. Its beady eyes were bloodshot and spoke of madness.
The thing barked, a half-grunt, half-roaring hoot that sent spittle flinging every which way. Its maw opened to revealed yellowing rows of canines that left absolutely no doubt as to its preferred diet.
“Fortification Shield!” Unlike his usual shields that formed in mid-air, Jun incanted the most stalwart shielding he had in his arsenal. Three buffers in the form of crystalline ice shards dug deep into the earth, forming a wedged barrier.
“GET READY!” Jun shouted. “EVERYTHING YOU GOT.”
The creature struck.
Its skull must have acted as a battering ram, for Jun watched with disbelief as his best Shield singularly shattered.
“Stacking Shield!” He shouted, but the barreling creature was too bulky and too fast. Three additional layers of ice shattered like rice paper, and all Jun could do was to redirected its trajectory as not to strike him head-on.
Before the others could react, the thing was barreling past Jun, throwing him aside.
Shit! Gwen’s mind screamed. It’s now or never!
Yue’s barrage struck the beast, sending it askew. Her flames, however, had no significant effect, cascading off its hide in flaming sheets.
Shit, the thing may have Fire as a base element. Yue realised in a panic. Gwen had better pick up the slack!
Gwen's signature spell quickly followed her bolt.
She channelled as much mana as she could muster into her sure-kill spell, feeling her reserves drop from full to exhaustion in a single cast. Almost two dozen arcs of lighting erupted across the giant-wombat, grounding below, generating enough heat and energy to turn the sandy soil beneath into shards of silica.
The thing slumped and began to slide from its remaining momentum, stopping only half a meter in front of Elvia and Henley.
"Is it dead?" Elvia trembled.
What the fuck was that? They wanted to scream. That’s not supposed to be in the green zone!
The creature was built like a ute mated with a brick shit-house and could have easily broken through the attacks and shields of lesser Mages. There was something seriously wrong with the intelligence of the region the school had received. This creature was most certainly a Soldier class, at least tier 4.
“I found him!” Elvia cried, and with Henley’s help gingerly retrieved Jun from the bushes.
“My arm…” Jun groaned. They could see that his left arm was turned oddly in an impossible direction.
“I’ll call basecamp,” Gwen said, seeing that Yue was beside herself with worry. “Elvia, do your thing.”
“This is going to itch…” Elvia told Jun apologetical before she began to incant her healing spells.
Jun’s eyes rolled back in his head.
“Sir! We ran into a huge creature just now! It was at least a Soldier Class!” Gwen reported. “Request returning to basecamp!”
“Granted, return as soon as you can, Group Seven, we are getting reports from all over that there are higher level creatures in the region. What is your status? Do you need an escort?”
“We’ll be fine sir, please prioritise the other groups.”
“Acknowledged. Be safe and make haste!”
Jun recovered his senses once Henley gave him a few slaps on the cheeks.
“Forget the stuff at our camp, we need to get back to basecamp now!” he declared.
“Shall I recover the stone, Gwen?” Elvia asked.
The gathering looked at the smoking carcass of the gigantic beast. It would take at least an hour to dig through that thing, and they had no way of moving it.
“Screw it,” Gwen took over command. “Let's move.”
Just as she gave the order, another warm glow infused her chest. Whatever, no time for mystery, Gwen thought as she drove the pendant from her mind. They needed to go before another one of those damn things showed up.
Elvia placed another buff on the group, relieving their fatigue.
The group moved out, hoping to hell there would be no more encounters.