The two girls reciprocated cheeks.
Surya observed the exchange, his face full of benevolence, his heart finally returned to its usual cadence. In light of Henry's ruthless sentencing of Mark, leaving his cucu perempuan with his old friend had been no different to sending merino into a Hob's den. As such, for the first half of the day, Surya had assumed a foul and disgruntled disposition while Gwen tied together loose ends to the fiasco, casting such a moody shadow that all his assistants, Debora included, fled from his scorn.
Around mid-day, Surya received a Message spell from Kilroy. As he listened, his face alternated between shock, calm, and finally euphoria. At long last, he had received permission for a Teleportation Circle at the estate. Such a thing cost as much as three figures in HDM crystals, but considering her circumstances after Blackheath, Surya would prefer Gwen not taking public transport for some time.
As the sun fled, Surya's NoM servant served supper. Locals working for the Magus, they had been apprehensive at first but stayed on once they realised that the 'dangerous' Mage was just a benign, eccentric artist.
And so it was that the five sat in front of the infinity garden - Surya, Gwen, Debora, Melissa and Tess, enjoying a supper of tender roast and heirloom vegetables. Surya's assistants were not privy to Gwen's secrets, Debora not to the entirety of it, and so the conversation was kept light-hearted and full of sweet nothings. Surya commended that Debora was performing exceptionally well in learning the Bronze-skin techniques and that she would be of great help in the future. In his esteemed opinion, the athletic, earnest girl got along well with his other two apprentices, and together they had been making some rather ambitious new works. Following dinner, classic Pavlova with fresh strawberries and cream, paired with a sweet Moscato dessert wine capped off the night. As was usual for the tablelands, the air stayed sultry even after the sun dipped against the horizon. The girls had left their glasses untouched at first but seeing it served and that no one seemed to mind, proceeded to sinfully sip away at the scented amber liquid.
For Gwen, the frizzante was a Godsend. It wasn't the supernatural mead that Sufina supplied, but actual alcohol, pure and clear and natural, full of euphoric buzz. When was the last time she had drunk alcohol? Gwen couldn't recall; after all, that had been a lifetime ago. She stole a nip here and there, her glass perpetually topping itself thanks to the nefarious designs of Tess and Mel, likely wondering if an another Gwen lurked under her unflappable calm.
When the three bottles finally spilt the last drop, the four girls were rip-roaring with laughter like old chums. The sun died a glorious red death, forming that timeless Outback panorama of burning plains and flaming skies. Surya announced his retirement and stumbled off to sleep in his workshop and Mel and Tess returned to their rooms in the west wing. Debora also retreated, leaving Gwen by herself to ponder the insignificance of man under the horizon-spanning Milky Way; wondering if this was the same constellation as her old world.
"He that has the steerage of my course… direct my sail…" She said to no one in particular, too groggy to recall the rest of the lines. By now, she was flushed and sweaty. The nights on the tablelands were unpleasant at best. She would have to beg Opa for some cooling glyphs in the guest rooms. Just sitting here, without even moving, she was feeling beads of sweat catching in the folds of her cotton dress. She would need more clothes for her month-long stay as well, but for now, she could borrow from Tess and Mel.
Unsteadily, Gwen made her way to her room in the dark, threw off her dress, and fell comfortably into her bed. She felt flushed with the heat of fermented muscats, relaxed and happy. So many knots have been untied, and Gwen felt safe for the first time since arriving in this world.
The sheets were coarse and stuck to her skin, but her mind was already elsewhere. She pondered her parallel lives, measuring one against the other. Though Gwen had first rejected the Gwen of this world, her alternative life had grown on her. In old Sydney, she had left behind many regrets. Of the four-burner stove that was family, health, career and friends; Gwen had shut the one labelled family entirely, redirecting its time and energy towards health and wealth. She rarely even had time for friends, and her romantic pursuits had been a horror. Now, in this world, through uncertain trials and tribulations under risk of life and limb, she had reached a kind of equilibrium.
For friends, she had Yue, Elvia, and now Debora. For a mentor, she had her Master, Henry. For family, she had Opa, who gave her a taste of belonging she had not savoured in her parallel life. As for her career— that was yet uncertain.
Bodily, she stretched out luxuriously on the double bed, ready for the lull of blissful sleep. Internally, her mind wandered through the darkness, careless touching this and that.
There was a nervous moan beside her as Gwen poked something soft with her nails.
She froze and slowly turned her head.
In the dim light, she met Debora's flaming face.
"I er... think I have the wrong room."
That was the truth. The east wing of the complex had six identical bedrooms in the hopes that one day family would gather to celebrate the material achievements of House Huang. Unfortunately, that particular project ignited when Surya, Helena and Kwan burned their bridges. As a result, the east wing of the estate was entirely untouched by human occupation. Moreover, the doors had been neither labelled nor were easily distinguishable in the gloom.
Flushing with embarrassment, Gwen tried to lift herself from the bed, but the disorientating influence of wine sent her rolling off its side. She yelped as she crashed onto the timber floor, face up and writhing in agony.
"Jesus, are you alright, Gwen?" There was something off about Debora's voice; it lacked its usual tenor and clarity. In the low light of the stars, Gwen spotted her friend's face.
Debra had been crying.
With a tump, Debra joined her. Her friend had gotten up too quickly and had likewise lost her balance. Stumbling onto the floor, she rolled onto her knees and elbows, then came to a rest beside Gwen.
The two of them laid side by side in awkward silence.
Perhaps it was the alcohol, but Gwen soon broke the solemn moment with a chortle. Debora joined in a moment later. Before they knew it, they were both laughing out loud, albeit quietly— it was simply too hot for locomotion.
Finally, Gwen managed to think of something to say.
"Sorry…" she apologised. "For pulling you into all of this."
Debora said nothing, merely breathing arrhythmically, trying to cool herself on the cold timber floor. In the darkness, Gwen could see her friend's body outlined in the silhouetted sheen, lit by a silvery light. Unbidden, Debora's crests and valleys, mounds and falls quaked a little from the emotions beneath her honeyed skin.
"I didn't know you were from such an amazing family, Gwen..." Debora muttered finally with a tone that was forlorn and lost. "I'd always thought you were just like me, that we were close in stature."
"It's just Grandfather," Gwen admitted. "You don't want to meet the rest of the family, trust me."
She thought about what she had said, then added an addendum.
"Richard's alright. He's a funny guy."
Debora wasn't listening.
"I thought… I thought we weren't so different. I just had to work harder. Until that is, I met Master Henry, and Alesia, and that Gunther guy..." Debora's voice was growing more affected with every word. Besides her, Gwen felt Debora's emotions mounting with her irregular breath, her chest rising and falling, expanding and contracting. "They're not ordinary people Gwen, and they all wanted to help you. That means that you are no longer an average person. You're in another world now, how could I catch up to that? How's that fair?"
Her voice broke.
"You're going to be so far away, so far and out of reach. I don't even know what I am doing anymore, Gwen. Why am I trying so hard?"
"Debbie..." Gwen wanted to comfort her friend, but she had nothing to add. Whatever comforting words she spoke would merely be sophistry. Could she promise Debora that she would carry her? That would be supreme arrogance and an insult; it would only make the matter worse.
In the dark, Debora turned to face her. The girls' eyes were hot with upset, making snail trails down the sides of her cheeks.
"What's it like to have a mere mortal ask to join your party?" Debbie uttered devastatingly, her tone both bittersweet and tinged with despairing misery. "Was it funny? Did you and the girls have a lark?"
"No, of course not, Debbie..." Gwen scanned her memory for something intelligible to say, but her brain was so overwhelmed by the amber fever of the muscat that her thoughts felt like sifting through cotton.
"When I think of you and Yue and Elvia, seeing the world and moving beyond the Shield Wall— going on your adventures, leaving for tier 1 cities. And I am stuck here in this terrible Frontier town next to that horrid snake— I just..." Debora sobbed, a quiet, heartbroken wail.
Gwen repressed a pang of guilt. Debora had not known that the serpent was benign, nor could she inform Debora of the truth. Gwen understood, though. Even drunk, she completely understood why Debora felt so alienated, helpless and alone. Her friend had been tenacious, stubborn and competitive. The competition with herself had been a driving force, especially after their Awakening. Yet, she was now out of reach, entirely out of reach, forever. Was there something she could do? She wasn't sure, but she wanted to try. Gwen scanned through her memories for her absent maternal memories, and found involving Percy, whimpering in the night because their father was working and their mother was gone. She had held him then, brother and sister, his face against her bosom. She had rubbed his back and cradled the babe until he grew exhausted. The next morning, Percy was good as new.
Unsure of what else to do, Gwen reached out with her slender arms and pulled in the sobbing Debora, stroking her hair with one hand while whispering kind words with her husky voice.
"Shhh... it's okay, Debbie— everything will be alright. You can make it with us to the same university. We can even join the same military unit. We'll be together on adventures big and small. I don't know if we will be together forever, but it's going to be great while we are—"
Debora stifled her sobs as Gwen spoke of halcyon days ahead.
The room now grew unbearably hot. The diffusion of emotions had made it stuffy and stifling. They would have to take a breather outside and cool down.
Her friend withdrew from Gwen's embrace, pulling back far enough that they slept face to face.
Unlike her old world, there was no light pollution in the Outback. Up above, the Milky Way glimmered with promises, an ambient sea of stars stretching from boundary to boundary. The moon itself hung full and bright, casting a pale white glow.
And under that hanging glow, Debora's eyes were as bright as the amber flutes of Muscato they had savoured, twinkling with hope under the silver light of the glimmering heavens. Opposite, Gwen's elfin face was pale as fragile milk.
Then Debora kissed her.
Not a peck, nor a tap, but a full kiss on the mouth.
Her friend's lips were soft and moist, enveloping Gwen's own, imploring her to respond. There was a slight, wet suction; Debora's tongue was hinting at better things to come. It was Gwen's first kiss, and yet it wasn't.
Arguably, Debora kissed well, and Gwen sensed this wasn't her first rodeo. Nonetheless, the uninvited act was shocking enough for the groggy fog of the grapes to fall away.
She pulled their lips apart, a spider thread of saliva appearing and disappearing between them. A scent of sultry grapes lingered on their flushed lips.
"I... should go," Gwen said softly, this time carefully and patiently removing herself from the floor.
"Gwen," Debora begged, her eyes full of panic.
"I am alright, Debbie…" Gwen replied softly. She didn't want her friend to feel bad.
"I am sorry," Debora began, trying to get up herself.
"It's okay. I was a little lost there was well." Gwen confessed, controlling her cadence.
Debora tried to stand, but she was still a little knock-kneed and trembling. Perhaps Debbie was afraid that she would hate her now? If Gwen was a particular kind of woman, she could make Debora's life a living hell. Still, knowing Debora's family and their religious attendance of Sunday Mass, the revelation was a big surprise. But then again, did Debora like her in that way? Gwen wasn't exactly sure, but she was the adult here. She understood puberty and all its confusing, hormonal contradictions.
"It's fine Debs." Gwen leaned over.
To Debora's surprise, she kissed her ice-cold forehead. "I'll see you tomorrow."
There was silence as Gwen retrieved her dress and moved to the door.
She opened it and waited.
"Thank you," Debora replied, her voice full of allaying gratitude.
Gwen likewise breathed out a sigh of discrete relief.
Gwen found the right room next door. She doubled checked that it was unoccupied, and finally fell into bed.
This time, there was the lull of undisturbed sleep.
* * *
Gwen was given the luxury of sleeping until midday. After everything that had happened in Blackheath, Her body finally caught up to the banked hours of fatigue that had been kept away by Golden Mead and adrenaline.
Half-starved, she politely asked the NoM servants to make her a cold-cut sandwich from the previous day's leftovers.
She then sat by the infinity feature and considered what she should be doing.
There was a feeling of emptiness on her fingers. She had lost her storage ring, and by that same measure, she had lost the notebook Henry and Surya had painstakingly made for her. She had memorised the routines, of course, but she had wanted it as a keepsake. All in all, the only she had retained was the jade pendant, for which she had Caliban to thank.
Near the craft quarter, Opa emerged from his steaming foundry with his assistants in tow. A broad grin of anticipation written all over his earnest face.
"Got some nice snoozes in?"
They bantered for a while as drinks materialised.
Surya rummaged around the pouch of his work-satchel, finally producing a small wooden box. He opened it and displayed it to Gwen magnificently. It was a diamond ring.
"Here." he threw it toward her. "Commissioned by the Master of the Ten himself."
Gwen caught it in one hand and opened her palm, examining the intricately crafted piece of jewellery. The "diamond" was a creature's Core, of course, merely prepared in the style of a brilliant square emerald, refracting a scintillating pattern of four distinct quadrants.
Gwen marvelled at its brilliance. Diamonds were a girl's best friend after all, even in a world of dungeons and dragons.
"The cut was done an Asscher Inscriber. The Core is from your Master's private collection. All I had to do was inscribe and mount it. Try it on."
Gwen slipped the ring onto her dominant ring finger, the band shrinking to fit.
"This is— a medium Storage Ring!" Gwen gasped. "There's something else as well."
"There's the usual teleportation beacon," Surya advised with a tone of pride in his work. "The core was powerful enough to sustain a few more spells, so I also put Water Breathing and Feather Fall in there too, for you know, contingency."
"Oh, Opa! Thank you!" Gwen hugged her grandfather, making a note of needing to thank her Master as well. A Storage Ring with additional Glyphs! It was worth hundreds if not a thousand HDMs!
"Hee, hee, hee…" Surya grinned, very much pleased with himself. "There's a glamour applied so it would look unassuming. Don't worry about showing it off."
They conversed some more about the uses of the ring, its method of activation, as well as important do's and don'ts.
"So, you wanna do some work or are you going to get fat off Opa's land?"
"Of course, I love part-time jobs," Gwen cooed delightfully. "What can I help with?"
"Well, Henry's sent over the spell books for Detection, Message and a few useful Transmutation spells to get your foundation started, but you'll be working on those in private. Meanwhile, I got a Roo problem happening now that the lakes all dried up. The damn things are ripping apart my fences trying to get to the water here."
That was no surprise, even in her old world, kangaroos were becoming a pest.
"I'll ask around the local area. You and Debs can probably head around and do some corralling and culling. Roos are good for eating too, and their pelts are worth good LDMs. With that ring, you should be able to bring back two ta three at least."
"How many Roos are we talking here, Opa?"
"Oh, you know, swarms of the buggers, a few hundred? A thousand? Who knows? They're just big grasshoppers. The NoMs loved eating the stray ones, but the big reds are far too big and powerful for them to fight. So make sure you get the local farmers to spot you while you're out there."
Swarms of two-meter tall big red kangaroos, Gwen grimaced. That doesn't sound too dangerous. If she could improve the dietary condition of the locals as well, that was an additional boon.
"Alright, I'll go get ready, Opa. I need to get some appropriate clothing though, are there any shops around here?"
"You gotta go into town, got Crystals on you?"
Gwen shook her head; she was alas, penniless.
Putting on her best face, she blinked expectantly at Opa.
Surya grinned, savouring Gwen's supplicating expression. He passed a hand over the table expensively and dispensed a small mound of crystals both high and low in density. Another pass and a few rolls of green notes fell onto the pile.
"Happy shopping. I'll get Tess to bring the car around. You know, you should work on Transmutation, at tier three you get to cast Flight! Once you and Debora can fly, you can go anywhere."
Gwen gave Opa a big wet kiss. Half-drunk, the old Enchanter walked away with a spring in his step, as blithe as a Tigger.
"Shopping!" Gwen punched the air with a fist. She couldn't wait.
* * *
"Oi Jacko, where's Tako?" Stevo shouted across the lowing of cattle roving across the tablelands.
"Dunno," Jacko fired back, his voice hoarse from the dry air. "I'll go check on em, wait up."
He tapped the flanks of his grey mare, and the horse sped into a gallop, making for the back of the herd. He found their number three behind the last cattle, starting and stopping, looking back with a sense of dismay and uncertainty.
"What's the matter, mate?"
Tako turned to his friend with a face full of worried lines on his sunbaked, leathery skin. The young jackaroo's name was really, Tako. No self-respecting Japanese person would call themselves "Octopus". His real name was Takahashi, and when his parent migrated onto the Frontier, they told him to just go with the flow.
"There's something following us." Tako squinted against the sun, shielding his eyes. "The trail ain't right."
Jacko took a gander, kicked his horse and made a short perimeter around the suspect area. There was plenty of evidence that pointed to the passing of prime Auroch cattle, but little indication of monsters.
"Seems alright to me, mate. All I see is bullshit, ha!" Jacko joked uproariously. Tako was a good bloke, but he was a little high-strung, always going on about fearing this and being wary of that. Sometimes a bloke just needs to relax.
"I am serious, Jacko," Tako returned, though seeing Jacko's clowning, clowning, he couldn't help but smile himself. "Oi! OI—! The hell is that?"
Taco squinted. There was a little grey flag moving towards them.
"Jacko, stop! What's that?"
Jacko halted his mare and looked, squinting against the blinding rays.
"Looks like…" He began, then something struck the back of his mind. The old drovers told stories like these, exchanged them for goon at the pub. "No bloody way…"
"Jacko!" Tako started, turning his horse. "Shit its coming right this way! Run mate! Run!"
"A—, fuck me dead!" Jacko whipped his horse around and made a straight-bolt for the herd. "We gotta get the Aurochs back to the ranch! There are Mages there that can help us!"
The thing that was coming towards them was diving through the red earth with an absurd velocity, somehow keeping up with the horses at full gallop.
But for how long could it keep up that speed? That was the pickled sandwich; Tako knew that their horses were tired from the sun and the heat, and couldn't possibly keep a gallop for more than a few minutes.
Suddenly, there was the sound of something launching. The jackaroos turned back to see a massive monster, more shark than land-beast, sleek with a head covered in hard carapace and tipped like a sharp cone. Absurdly, it looked as though a rhinoceros had crossbred with a tiger shark, and then given ten doses of malevolence. Effortlessly, thing leapt through the air, striking the ground not with a thud, but with the soft sound of sand shifting. When it emerged again, it was moving faster; it was gaining on them!
"How the fuck is that bugger moving so fast?!" Jacko shouted, his horse was doing alright, but he noted with another 'Fuck!' that Tako was slowing down.
"Jacko! My horse is giving out soon, get the herd out of here! Tell Stevo to lead em to the ranch! I'll try to draw it away!"
"Na mate! That's bullshit, don't do it!"
"No time! Gotta go! Come at me, ya fugly bastard!"
Tako veered, whistling and hooting the whole while. The shark-creature twisted in midair and dived for the noisy rider. Tako veered again, the creature just missing him by a few inches, sending up a spray of red dust and sand.
"I am making for the Deadman's Rock!" He shouted to Jacko, who was now galloping away. "If I live! I'll be there!"
He dodged another dive from the creature.
Tako's horse was starting to foam; she wasn't going to last much longer.
He would have to ride her as far as possible, then run on foot while the thing fed on his beloved mare.
"Sorry, Betsy." Tako leaned in and patted his horse, kissing it on the neck. "This is gonna be our last ride, mate."