"Betsy, I'll avenge you, I promise."
Tako swore to the heavens as he scrambled up Deadman's Rock. The landmark was a substantial chunk of wind-blasted obsidian over ten meters tall. Usually, the rock offered a fantastic view, though the climb itself was precarious. That was precisely the reason Tako had scrambled for shelter in its direction, for there was no way the land-shark could climb something so smooth and brittle. Even if the creature managed to damage the landmark at its base, the obsidian deposit would still offer a razor-sharp surprise when its exteriors fell away to reveal an edge that could shred leather as though paper.
Tako himself had done the climb several times before as a dare, though only had he been sober. Now, he scrambled up its sides, fingers digging into familiar nooks and crannies. There was a moment of suspension when he accidentally lost his footing near the peak, but sheer adrenaline propelled him over the edge.
From above, he could see the creature, some hundred-odd meters away, chewing away at his horse. In their last exchange, the land-shark had erupted from the red earth and floored Betsy, sending her tumbling. The unfortunate horse had struck the ground awkwardly, after which Tako knew the end was nigh. Betsy had neighed tragically and thrashed about, kicking up a storm of red dust. But Tako could only bite his lip and run. He recalled that there had been one last desperate neigh, smothered by a triumphant roar. After that, Tako knew that it was over for his beloved mare.
From the advantage of the rock, he could see the creature tearing poor Betsy apart, sending chunks of her down its gluttonous gullet. If Tako were a Mage, he would have pounded the bastard with Magic Missiles, but for now, there was nothing else he could do but wait. The light was beginning to wane, and he had left his saddlebags on Betsy.
It was going to be a cold, long night.
Caliban tore into the chest of a big red roo, its slimy shielding of void energies cutting through the thick hide with the ease of punching tissue paper. When it emerged from the creature's torso with a rip-roaring cry of triumph, Gwen felt her vitality restored by a small magnitude.
Beside Caliban, Ariel was raining down a storm of blue-white destruction. Empowered by Gwen's Lightning Bolts, the burning hides of the roos struck by the mongoose smelled like mouldy carpet set on fire.
Debora had set up a perimeter wall around them with a modified Wall of Stone, changing the semicircle of elevated rocks into jagged spikes that fanned out dangerously. With a simple change in the flow of mana, she could expand, distend, or even launch a line of spines. Already she had caught three roos that had tried to assail Gwen in close combat, impaling the buggers like oversized lizards captured by a Spined Shrike.
Another Roo had tried a frontal assault, sneaking past the wall to strike at Debora with a deadly kick launched from its powerful tail. Debora responded by bracing for impact, digging her heels into the ground by summoning stones that secured her footing. As a result, the Roo ricochetted off her torso and slid under Debora's flank, at which point she swung down her heel like an axe. The blow struck the Roo dead in the forehead; engendering a sound of splintering bones. When yet another roo made it past her Wall of Spikes, she sent out a Catapult spike that pierced its torso and pinned it to the ground, where a secondary explosion of Ground Spike transformed the Roo into kabob.
Some distance away, Rhodes oozed while the girls fought. The engagement was a massacre, and he was in an abattoir. The NoM manager could scarcely have guessed that two delicate-looking teenage girls were capable of butchering eight-foot Roos with the ease of kicking chooks.
The last Roo fled.
"Lightning Bolt!" Gwen intoned with a flourish. A blue-white bolt ionised in the distance and pierced the last Red Roo through the back, sending it crashing onto the red dust.
Debora counted her kills. Five big roos, three with near-full pelts.
Gwen examined her own. Seven big, two small, four medium roos, nary an unburnt pelt between the lot of them.
Caliban burst from the chest of a fresh kill with a flourish.
"Hiss! Hiss!" it roared in triumph, its lamprey mouth bloody with excitement, its barbed tongues flailing wildly. Gore slid from its glass-like carapace, pooling where it met the purple-pink flesh underneath.
Some distance away, Rhodes barfed.
Gwen conjured some water with a cantrip incantation, and the girls washed off the blood. Gwen was untouched thanks to Debora, while Debora had to wring blood from her arms, and legs.
"Prestidigitation!" she incanted.
The bloodstains evaporated.
Gwen's eyes flashed. She was a Transmuter now too! She could also master the most useful spell in the history of dry cleaning. It would be the very next thing she requested from Master.
"Right, good work." Rhodes washed out his mouth with some water from a hose, then took a deep breath. "Let's get you settled in. Do you want to take horses, quads, or the 4x4 truck?"
Debora's eyes flashed.
All girls dreamt of horses and ponies. She was a city girl, and had never ridden horses; this wasn't an opportunity she was going to give up lightly. As for Gwen, her passion for riding was no less inflamed.
Rhodes took them to the stable and selected two beautiful mares. Gwen's mount was a grey-white yearling with a distinct, spotted pattern; Debora's was a pure white mare that made her eye glow with admiration.
"Daisy and Dorothea," Rhodes introduced them. "We'll put you through the paces at the farm. Come on. I'll introduce you to our tracker, Tommy."
The girls picked out suitable saddles and watched Rhodes strap the horses in. Gwen watched as Rhodes helped Debbie mount the gentle mares, his eyes unblinkingly gazing past her friend's tanned thighs. Midway, the man must have spotted a drop of dark blood on her boot heel and was reminded that these sensual bronze stalks had just crushed the head of a three-meter Roo. He coughed politely and gathered his wits.
While the girls took turns riding, Rhode went and looked for the young jackaroo. When the girls returned from their first lap, they were greeted by a leather-skinned young man with thick lips and a pleasant face.
"Hi lovelies, me name's Tommy," he greeted them jovially with a wave of his hand.
Rhodes slapped his hand over Tommy's hat, sending it tumbling until the string snagged Tommy's neck.
"These are Lady Mages, Tommy! Have some manners, ya dill!"
"Sorry boss!" Tommy apologised cheekily. "Ya Majesty Mages!"
"Hi, I am Gwen," Gwen replied with an incline of her head.
"Debora." Debora extended a hand and Tommy ran up to shake it.
"Cor! You're mighty strong Miss!" Tommy spat, attracting yet another bat on the head from Rhodes.
"Tommy, you better stop muck’n around. The Misses need ta get a handle on the horses. You're going out there later this avo to round up some Roos. Just make sure they get there safe and sound, alright?"
"Yes, Boss!" Tommy nodded. "Alright Misses, I'll put ya through the paces. Daisy and Dorothea are real good with young Jillaroos. You'll be right as rain!"
"Right. I gotta head back to the office." Rhodes bid them goodbye, he had still had a dozen roo carcasses to sort out. Pending their earlier slaughter, he would have to get the meat to the coolers and the pelts processed. "Message me if you need anything, anything!"
The girls spent the next hour or so practising horsemanship. Debora was a natural, taking to the horse like a Hob on a wolf. Gwen however, was in a world of pain by the time an hour was over. Her buttocks were bruised, and her thighs were chaffed. Her spine felt compressed, and her shoulders throbbed.
Lunch was brought by a few ranch hands in tin foil trays. Unsurprisingly, it was grilled Roo served with a simple pan-gravy on grilled vegetables. The girls offered to share with it Tommy, but the young man proved too apprehensive to eat with them. Instead, he offered to take their left-overs. Feeling somewhat miffed by the happy-go-lucky young man's meekness, Gwen shared a single-serve with Debora and left her serving for the jackaroo. Once the girls had eaten, they watched the boy wolf down the sizeable steak, waiting until he had finished the meat before asking him about his life on the ranch.
"Yeah, I'm pretty happy here, the boss' a top bloke." Without disguise, the young jackaroo spoke of his good fortune in finding work somewhere south of the Shield Barrier.
By now, Gwen could clearly see that the young man was an indigenous youth. She had read that the indigenous people had carved out a niche in the Wildland, surviving on ancient spirit magic and animalism. Aboriginal lore was an area of great interest to Gwen, especially after meeting the fabled Serpent of folklore, which Henry suspected may indeed be the Rainbow Serpent.
"What of your tribe?" Gwen asked carefully. It was a touchy topic back in her old world. The English colonists had little empathy for those they had deemed the 'noble savages,' less so when it came to land rights.
"It's a living." Tommy shrugged. "Mostly the elders and a few blokes stay with the mob, the rest are like me, we come down past the Shielding Station to find some wrangling work. The skilled ones could use their magic to work the animals, or become trackers for the militia."
"Are there many of you?"
"Yeah, Nah," The boy laconically replied, implying, "yes but not many left in the old ways."
"I'd love to… see what a Wildland settlement is like…" Gwen mentioned casually.
"Sure, Miss, be glad to take ya. If the Boss allows it. Journey's right dangerous."
"I think we can manage just fine," Gwen thanked the young wrangler. She would love to find out more about the Serpent's lore.
They had been sitting out, digesting the big lunch when the first runner arrived.
"Tommy! Mate! Heard you got some Mages on the farm!" A ride leapt off his horse deftly and skidded to a halt, leaving behind an impressive trail of dust.
Tommy was still working the girls through the paces. Debora was already proficient enough to range and roam, but Gwen was another story altogether.
"Victa, what's wrong, mate?"
"It's the Adina boys, they went out droving their Angus and ran into some kinda Shark monster yesterday. Jacko just got back with Stevo, but Takahashi is still trapped near Deadman's rock, assuming he's alive O'course."
"Shit, really? Fuck me. The poor bastard must be up shit creek without a paddle." Tommy scratched his head apprehensively. "Look, Mate, I wanna help as much as anybody but I ain't gonna command no Mages. Maybe you should take it up with the Boss."
Victa looked over at the two girls still trotting to and fro on their horses.
Tell the Boss was the right thing to do, but all that's gonna happen is that Rhodes puts out a reward for the monster and they go out a day or two later to see what parts of Takahashi they could find. Rhodes wasn't a bad guy, hell, he was as much of a top bloke as Bosses come, but even he couldn't summon Mage to help. Magical aid was costly, meaning that the whole Estate would owe debts they would struggle to repay.
Gwen and Debora rode up beside the young men.
"Is something the matter?" Gwen inquired curiously upon seeing their looks of consternation.
Tommy's face was an open book.
"Is nothing much, Miss," he began. "Just one of the boys stranded a half day's ride from here. Got himself corralled by a real pickle of a monster, half-shark they say, ate poor Betsy, his mare. Real savage like, blood and guts and all. The poor horse was still alive when it dug in."
"Monstrous!" Debora's blood was instantly up. She stroked her mare, Dorothea, lovingly.
"We're right worried," Tommy lamented. "Poor old Tako, got an old Mam too, not ta mention his Pop got a real bad case of rheumatism. I guess his sister ain't gonna go to school after he dies. Maybe she can find some legwork in the big city, doing some menial labour and all that..."
Debora's breath quickened. Her face was turning several shades of red. Gwen's eyes regarded Tommy coldly, making the dark jackaroo flinch.
Gwen patted Debora's shoulder and urged her to calm down.
"So, Tommy, what does this have to do with us?" Gwen asked. She was determined to help, but also annoyed that Tommy thought wrangling Debora with a sob story was going to get them to help.
"Oh…" Tommy knew he'd stepped on a sleeping wombat's testies. "I.. I don't rightly know Miss, but them's the facts o' life."
"Gwennie…" Debora begged, her eyes twinkling with desperation. The sight of a pleading Debbie was cute. Very much so. More so for her ardent desire to do good. Gwen groaned, lamenting her lost innocence.
"Just this one time, Tommy." She turned to warn the young station hand. "I catch you next time, and I'll get Caliban to rip you a new one."
"Sure thing, Miss!" Tommy's face broke into that careless, idiotic grin of his. Gwen wondered how much of it was a ruse and how much of it was real.
"Let's go now!" Debora announced, turning her horse.
"We need water and supplies!" Tommy wheeled his horse.
"No need." Gwen flashed her Storage Ring. "Get going!"
"Opa, it's Gwen. We got a situation out here." Gwen explained the crisis of the moment and what they intended to do.
"Careful, the Land Sharks can grow up to Tier 5. It's rather rare to see one this close to the city though. I hope nothing is amiss at the Shield Wall station."
"Shall we check it out after?" Gwen asked.
"Too far without Flight spells. I'll get Rhodes to bring up the 4x4 to the closest main road. Want me to send Tess or Mel?"
Gwen gave it some thought but decided against it. She wanted to be tempered and trialled to grow in her many Schools of Magic. That and in so far as her Void talent was concerned, there was nothing better than fighting in an isolated Outback full of clueless NoMs. At worst, even if Tess or Mel showed up, they can be trusted to keep their lips tight.
"I think we will be alright, Opa," Gwen assured Surya through her Message Device. "I'll contact you if we run into trouble."
"There's probably no Divination signal if you venture too far out, but good hunting. Take care of Debora."
"Yes, Opa." Gwen glanced at her companion. "I bring her back in one piece."
"Done." Gwen turned to the two jackaroos. "Let's get going then."
According to Tommy, Deadman's rock was a half-day ride away. If they were keen to save Tako, they should be able to reach the landmark by nightfall. For the average NoM, riding into the darkness, even with a torch was suicide. However, Gwen could conjure an array of Floating Torch, Dancing Lights and Flares. If and when they needed light, a good twenty to thirty meters around the party was manageable.
Not to mention I can Detect Magical Creatures, Gwen noted to herself.
Thanks to the horses, there was no need to take a detour back to the main road. The four of them simply crashed through the stunted, short shrubbery of the bush, alternating between trots and gallops. When the horses needed to rest, Gwen produced water, when they were hungry, snacks and rations materialised from thin air.
Of the foursome, Debora had been the antsiest out of them all. She was alternatively worried about running the horses and tiring them out, while paradoxically wanting to run the horses haggard to rescue Takahashi.
As for the jackaroos, they were acclimatised to death in the Outback. When Debora demanded to know why they weren't pulling their hair out, Tommy explained that somebody died every other week; from Magical Creatures, from accidents, from starvation or thirst, or from natural disasters. If folks worried about death to excess, nobody would ever get work done.
By nightfall, the group saw Deadman's Rock in the distance.
"Flare!" Gwen incanted, channelling more mana into it than she needed. The space around them soon took on a bright blue glow.
"Dancing Lights!" Again, Gwen over-channeled the spell and about a dozen or so lights appeared. Thanks to her dual-mastery of Conjuration, the orbs could follow her and remain persistent.
The party slowed as it approached the destination.
"I ma try’n call Tako," Tommy forewarned. "It's gonna be loud."
Tommy put two fingers to his lips and let out a shrill and sharp whistle that assaulted the girl's eardrums.
He tried again.
"Let me," Gwen offered.
She pointed to the highest point she could reach with her Conjuration spell, a good twenty or so meters in the air.
An explosion of sound and light rang out overhead. The fulmination rolled across the horizon, blowing apart the sand and dust below.
"Christ that's loud!" Tommy covered his ears.
Discretely, Gwen activated Detect Magical Beasts.
A filter suffused her vision. Any creature with powerful elemental cores would be lit with the hue of their element. According to her Opa, the Land Shark was hardly a subtle creature and should be clearly visible even a good few feet underground.
A shrill whistle answered them from atop the rock.
"Thank God." Tommy and Victa were grinning like shot foxes. "The bastard's alive!"
The light faded.
The party continued its approach.
"Oi Mate, I found something." Victa pointed to the distance. "Ah, the Misses might wanna look away."
To their right laid the hollowed form of Betsy, and the old girl was a right mess of flesh and bones.
"What a brute," Victa grunted sadly. "She was a good horse."
"Yeah well, that's why the Misses are here to put it down, ain't ya Miss?" Tommy turned to the girls.
Debora gripped her reins, her face full of undisguised anger. Gwen's expression was more aloof. The boy was too proficient at trying to stir Debora's blood, Gwen felt. That or Debbie needed to work on mastering her hormones.
They were even closer now and could just make out Tako's silhouette from atop the large piece of volcanic obsidian. He was waving like a madman.
Gwen looked around them. It was strange that she couldn't detect a single magical source.
More frantic waving from Tako. He was pointing toward the sky.
Gwen looked up. It took a second for Tako's charades to be digested by her brain.
"It's right below us!" she cried out, leaping from her horse. Unlike the others, she simply wasn't skilled enough to try and deal with the creature while mounted.
"Debbie! Jump!" Gwen incanted the spell she had been practising all yesterday without thinking.
At the height of her ascent, her trajectory slowed. Below, she watched her frightened horse bolt away.
A second later, a gigantic creature carapaced in solid granite and sleek as a missile shot from the ground towards her. It missed her by a good half-metre, but had she not been levitated thanks to Feather Fall, it would have snagged her leg. Glancing downward, she gazed into its maw and saw row upon rows of teeth that extended all the way into the abyss of its gullet.
Besides Gwen, Debora leapt off her horse with far more dynamics, buffing herself as she sailed through the air. She took full advantage of her momentum and landed with an impressive axe kick on the creature's torso, shattering some of its stony scales.
The creature lurched sideways in surprise and pain, snapping at her awkwardly as it skidded across the dusty red dirt.
"Gwen!" Debora called out, snapping Gwen from the aftershock of almost becoming shark bait. According to their Opa, Land Sharks had had a specialised death roll that they used to tear limbs from their prey.
In the air, Gwen took the opportunity to instantly summon her familiars. Her beasts materialised from their pocket dimensions on either side of the Shark, forming a triangle between Caliban, Ariel and Debora with the creature stuck in the middle.
Just as they were about to make their move, the creature dived. To Gwen and Debora's surprise, it drove into the earth as though swimming through water. Gwen channelled more mana into her eyes and noted worryingly that beyond the first metres or so, her Detection spell did not penetrate further into the red earth.
"Shit..." Gwen felt a cold premonition of what was to come. She couldn't Fly, and that was a fatal flaw. Should she keep using Jump and Feature Fall? Any more Transmutation spells and Debora would be asking awkward questions.
Thankfully, Debora's quick thinking salvaged their paralytic dilemma.
"Minor Shape Stone!" She incanted. Pillars of stone rose from the earth to a height of several meters. The girls both found purchase and quickly scaled to safety. Caliban coiled around Gwen's pillar while Ariel was fully confident it could duck something as clumsy as a turd shaped predator the size of a utility vehicle.
The Land Shark burst from the earth like a torpedo and launched itself into Debora's pillar, completely obliterating its circumference. Its little bead eyes glowed with malevolence, clearly irritated beyond belief that a small mewling creature could have cracked its carapace and caused it such injury.
The mongoose peppered the creature with motes of lightning.
"Blast Bolt!" Gwen channelled a sizeable portion of her mana into the blast, and the Land Shark lit up like a light bulb.
The light faded.
The creature was well-cooked but otherwise entirely lively. It roared, spraying rotten spittle all-over before leaping from the ruined pillar towards Gwen.
Debora shot like a ballista bolt from her own ruined pillar. She then activated her most potent combination of spells.
"Haste! Magic Weapon!"
The Transmuter became a blur of whirling kicks and punches, smashing into the creature with the fury and force of an excavation machine pulverising the earth. Bits of carapace flew into the air, smeared with dark, crimson shades of oxidising blood. As bone and flesh rendered, Debora grew speckled in the stuff, her white singlet blooming with sudden gouts of garnet and sangria.
To Gwen's disbelief, the Land Shark withstood Debora's assault. Not only that, it twisted its stunted neck into an impossible angle and snapped Debora off her feet. There was the sound of metallic gnashing as Debora's bronze skin scraped against razor-sharp fangs. Her friend gasped and cried out sharply, the force of the crushing bite cracking her ribs, pressing the air from her lungs.
The creature tossed its prey wildly. Debora was too tall for the Shark headed beast to swallow whole. Gwen saw the Shark ready itself for a death roll.
"FUCK!" Gwen swore under her breath. There was no avoiding it now.
In quick succession Gwen shot off four bolts with unerring accuracy, her aim long tempered with a thousand repetitions. While standing on its stumpy legs, the Lan Shark had remained relatively stationary. Even now, it lifted its bull-neck and readied itself for the roll.
At once, vitality drain from Gwen's body, her face took on the pallor of death.
Four bolts cut into the creature's limbs in quick succession. The first two struck true, slicing the fore-limbs clean off at the joints. The back legs, however, had been too thick for Gwen's low-tier attack. The bolts were consumed midway, leaving the limbs to hang by skin and bone.
Instantly, the Land Shark's blood sprayed hot and heavy over the red earth, yet, it was too dumb to register its mortal wounds. With its prey safely deposited in its maw, it persisted in throwing itself toward the motions of a death roll. Gwen watched as the thing turned, only to have the pain reach its nerve centre a full second later, paralysing the shark-faced rhino instantly. Debora pushed apart its jaws and extracted herself, streaks of white markings lacerating her stomach and lumbar, crisscrossed her bronze legs.
"Tough bastard." Debbie coughed, evidently feeling the soreness of her cracked ribs.
The creature was convulsing now, bleeding out rapidly. Its beady eyes staring with hatred towards the girls even as they dimmed. Caliban approached, revealing its malignant, hateful maw. Her creature salivated. Here was a lot of fresh meat, a good half-ton at least. Gwen was wondering if she should allow Debora the honour of having the deathblow when there was a call from the direction of Deadman's rock.
It was the Jackaroos, and they were returning with their lost mate, Tako.
Warily the station hands approached.
Gwen regarded Tako, who according to his mates, had risked his life to protect the herd and their lives. To her surprise, he was an Asian bloke, but then she recalled the guy's Japanese name. Unlike Tommy and Victa, the young man approached the Land Shark without an ounce of fear.
"May… may I kill it?" he inquired carefully with a voice that was crackling with emotion.
Gwen nodded and stepped aside, calling back Caliban and Ariel, who returned to their pocket dimensions. She was feeling a little nauseous from using four bolts in succession and had hoped the Land Shark would replenish some of her vitality. But, she was also content to let Tako take revenge the old-fashioned way.
Debora reached down into the earth.
"Minor Stone Shape!"
She extracted from the ground a dangerous-looking obsidian spear. Obsidian, on the whole, was a brittle crystal, but when chipped, it was impossibly sharp.
With a wince, Debora handed the weapon carefully to Tako.
They watched the young drover approach the Land Shark. The light was fading from its eyes now; it was barely alive.
"This is for Betsy! Ya piece of shit!" he shouted, raising the stone spear to strike.
With the sickening sound of a crab being pierced by a knife, the obsidian spear slid into the creature's eye socket. Midway, the spear broke away, leaving a good half-meter inside the Shark's skull.
The others agreed most heartily with Tako's display of courage.
It took a few more seconds for the creature to finally expire. Gwen was just about to turn away when she felt something she hadn't experienced since the Field Trip. There was a wisp of something, barely perceptible to at the edge of her vision. The strange phenomenon seemed to have emanated from the dead beast. She looked around, wondering what the thing could be.
As before, she placed her hand upon her chest and felt the Kirin amulet aglow with warmth.
"Oh?" Debora seemed to have sensed something as well. She kelt down toward the beast's gut, and to their surprise, dug both hands into its soft underbelly. A slosh of gory stuff came rolling out, causing the crew to gag. Just as they were wondering what the hell Debora was doing, she pulled out an amber stone the size of her fist.
"Is that a Creature Core?" Gwen asked, completely caught off guard. If it was a Spirit, then they had just won the game of life. If this magical creature had a unique Spirit, then that would explain why it had been able to dive so deep and 'swim' through the ground so effortlessly, bypassing the Shield Barrier.
Debora's gore covered hands were shaking. She was an earth Elementalist. If this was really the core of an Earthen Spirit…
She looked at Gwen with begging eyes.
They were at a crossroad.
The most ardent test of character now awaited the girls, a test that had destroyed many friendships.
How to split the loot.