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A note from Wutosama

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Edited 31/12/19

When a group of adventurers worked together, the etiquette of fair loot must be observed.

It was the unspoken law of Mages, for no Mage could survive without companions, and there was no deadlier destroyer of parties than a leader who hoped to claim all loot.

Usually, a party has five members.
They receive a thousand HDMs worth of spoils.
Via at the simple conjunction of arithmetics, each member should receive something equal in value. Should a member require a particular item of great importance, they are to pay the other members the missing cost, following an appraisal.

However, there were two distinct problems which now faced Gwen and Debora.

Firstly, if this was a Tier 3 - 5 Earthen Spirit, it meant that the Core's value was close to four to five thousand HDMs. If the Spirit possessed additional properties other than an affinity increase and identify friend-foe, it's monetary value would compound.

The second problem was that Debora's middle-class family was far from wealthy. Simply put, the Spirit was simply 'too good' for a mediocre Mage such as herself. In her lifetime, Debora likely would never afford a mid-tier Spirit. The loot was simply out of her league. The correct thing to do would be to sell the Spirit Core and split the money, a win-win for all.

Deep inside, Gwen knew that her friend desperately wanted more power so that she could catch up with her peers. This Elemental Spirit was her chance, her one opportunity. If she could somehow meld with this Spirit of Earth - her spells would become more powerful by several magnitudes. With any luck, her incantations would take on new side effects that may alter the physiology of her magic, making her a unique existence.

Such was their dilemma. If they had found a lightning elemental, Gwen could arguably payback Debora by begging Henry or Surya for a loan. But with the shoe on the other foot, there was little Debora could do to reciprocate her favour.

If so, how should she resolve their loot? Here was a watershed moment for Debora, but for herself, it was merely another boon.

Gwen took a deep breath.
She loved money, but she loved her friends more.

"I'll get the next one then, is that alright with you?" She intoned carefully. She felt a scrap of regret, but the foul feeling quickly passed.

Across from her, Debora's eyes blazed with gratitude and gladness, so much that her body physically trembled with joy.

Watching Debbie's reaction, her heart melted. With effortless ease, she fought off that mocking demon called envy.

"T-Thank you! Gwen, thank you so much!" Debora gushed, cradling the Spirit Core to her chest like a baby. "I-I don't know what to say!"

"Then say nothing." Gwen smirked.

"Should… should I try it now?"

Gwen held her tongue. Debra was a smart girl. The night was long, and minds could change in an instant.

"Wait up, lets set up camp," Gwen advised. "Tako, Tommy, can you find us a good spot?"

"You got it, boss!"

The makeshift party soon set up camp under the obsidian outcrop, shielded from the wind and the elements. Gwen set up a perimeter of Dancing Lights while the boys got to work clearing a space.

She produced two tents from her storage ring, some sleeping bags, and an assortment of camping supplies.

Not far, Tako's eyes went wide with shock, but the other two young drovers were already used to such miracles. With worshipful awe, the jackaroo stared at the most downright attractive girl he'd ever seen.

Gwen caught Tako gawking, and the young buck quickly looked away. She didn't mind the stupefied looks; it wasn't every day that people materialised filet-mignon from thin air. If she had been an NoM, she would have been equally impressed.

Meanwhile, Debora rinsed the blood from her body. Her white shirt was ruined, but her shorts and boots were intact. Gwen threw Deb a towel, feeling smug that she had everything inside her Storage Ring. With a little surprise, she realised that this was already her second storage ring. Conversely, Debora may not afford even a Minor Ring of Storage until Debs was a working adult. Watching her companion, she felt a pang of guilt, understanding that despite her trials and tribulations, she had been spoilt for opportunities.

More than before, Gwen felt that she had made the right decision to gift Debora with the Spirit Core.

By now, the boys managed to set up a roaring fire thanks to some magical items of convenience Gwen had purchased from the market. She materialised pots and pans, plates and cutlery, laying out enough for dinner and breakfast. Wordlessly, the jackaroos went about making supper.

With their audience distracted, Gwen turned her attention back to Debora. Her friend had retreated to a corner of the camp and now had the Spirit Core cradled across her lap.

With a thrum of mana, Debora began the ritual.

The process of subsuming a Spirit was simple enough. When defeated, an elemental spirit that had previously inhabited a Magical Creature became trapped within its Core. While attuning such a Core, a Mage gained the opportunity to spirit-bond the elemental to their astral body. The process gave the elemental a direct link to its home Plane, allowing it the sustenance required to maintain its ego. In return, the Mage took on some of the Spirit's abilities and Affinity.

Gwen sat, studying her friend. It was a shame that they were not in a Cognisance Chamber, else she could have witnessed the entirety of the phenomenon in full. In the future, Gwen knew that she would acquire an Elemental Spirit of her own. Though a Void one was out of the question, it was entirely possible to purchase a Lightning Elemental through her Master's connections or to find a Spirit by raiding the Orange and Black Zones.

"Gwen! I am starting!"

"Good luck!" Gwen gave her friend a thumbs up.

Debora held the stone close to her diaphragm, cradling the egg-shaped sphere like a babe. The Transmuter observed the amber glow swirling within, then began the process. There was a glimmer of light, then suddenly the Core grew dull even as Debora's physical body became encased in sand.

"Come on, Debs! You can do it!"

Debora's amber eyes now took on a dusky-orange glow. Gwen could feel the motes of Earthen mana pour from her friend's body as the Spirit attuned itself, fortifying her Affinity. The particles of stone and sand around Debora began to rise into the air, forming a swirling storm of brown-red dust. Gwen backed away. One of the pebbles had struck her leg with sufficient force to make her wince.

The boys paused their cooking to observe the spectacle. The dust storm grew until it was a good few meters across, sending Gwen and the others scrambling for cover. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the sandstorm ceased.

A seated female silhouette emerged from the falling dust. Debora had taken on the form of a sandstone statue. Visually, the combination of her crossed-legged visage Debora her the guise of a fertility goddess. With their mouths wide open, the jackaroos watched the slow peeling of caked dust from Debora's body, revealing the girl underneath.

Ye Gods! Deb's half nuddy! Gwen's heart leapt into her throat. She scrambled from cover, a towel materialising as she made for her friend. Debora, perhaps unaware, tried to meet her halfway. The girl shifted, a cascade of terracotta shells falling from her torso, exposing herself to three young men grinning like shot foxes.

"The stars are a right beaut tonight, Vic."

"Yeah, mate, she's sure glorious to look at."

"Me jeans a bit tight…"

With a growl, Gwen shot off a low powered flash-bang, sending the boys scurrying for the hills.

Debora lifted her eyes, still dazed by the fusion. From ambivalence, her expression began to change, first from realisation, then engendering a smile of such genuine joy that it instantly melted Gwen's heart.

"Thank you, thank you so much." Tears rimmed her amber eyes, now overflowing with gratitude. With her arms cradling her waist, Gwen could feel Debora's body pressed against her own. Apprehensively, she placed her hands upon Debora's ribs and made a little distance between them.

Debora stepped back, as naked as Leda in front of the Swan.

Gwen stepped back further still, producing a set of shirts and shorts. Silently, she made a mental note to include much more garments for the future, comprehending why Alesia had such an extensive wardrobe. To her surprise, Debora cast the attire aside haphazardly, making Gwen a little annoyed at the display of willfulness.

"You're too careless," Gwen knelt to retrieve the fallen apparel.

"What does it matter?" Her friend replied in a dreamy trance. "I am so happy right now."

"You look drunk, Debs. How's the Spirit doing?"

Debora pressed a hand to her heart, depressing the nubile flesh.

"It's pleased and grateful." Debora raised a finger, where a crumbling trail of silica began to circulate. "Would you like to see what we can do?"

"I would like to see you dressed first," Gwen said seriously.

Debora shook her head.

"I am afraid that's going to be rather difficult. It's one of those abilities."

"A full-body Transmutation?"

Rather than answering Gwen, Debora smiled and raised her arms.
Gwen felt motes of Elemental Earth gather around them.

"Bronze Skin!" Debora incanted.

Rather than transmuting into a being of bronze, her skin turned coarse. Motes of Earth with the consistency of sand flowed over Debbie's body. The effect was somewhat unsettling, as to Gwen's eyes, her friend had transformed into a golem consisted of shifting sand.

"I should probably call this Sand Skin now." Debora giggled.

"Wall of Sand!" Debora raised a hand. Where she motioned, walls of sand rose and fell, forming into instant shapes. Small hills, valleys, pillars, battlements, there seemed to be no end to what she could create at will. Looking down, Gwen felt something take her by the ankles. Before she could react, she and Debora were rising into the air, one meter, two meters, three. A few seconds later, they stood on a platform of compact sand. Gwen exhaled, immensely impressed. Typically, it would be impossible to reach this level of Affinity without years of extensive training.

"I am not sure what my Affinity is at the moment but… judging from before, it's more than likely five…"

"That's wonderful," Gwen congratulated her friend, growing more nervous by the minute. Debora was very close and very nude, Sand Skin or otherwise.

"Blink!" Debora announced. She suddenly disappeared, becoming nothing but a shell of loose sand, a hollowed-out beach sculpture. Gwen was about clap, then felt a pair of arms wrapping around her waist. She turned awkwardly, meeting Debora's mischievous eyes looking longing into her own.

Gwen looked down.
Her scalp instantly crawled.

"Blink" was an inferior form of teleport, one that shunted the body into the ethereal plane before phasing it back in at a nominated location. For low-Affinity casters, it came with the danger of being lost in the grey immaterial space— although Debora's Spirit now superseded that limitation. Unfortunately, "Blink" did not teleport parts of a caster's attire that wasn't suffused by attuned magic. That was the same problem that Alesia faced when not wearing quasi-magical battle gear.

Gwen herself had yet to possess any full-body effect incantations, but now that she was tapping into the versatile school of Transmutation, it was merely going to be a matter of time.

Of course, her most pressing problem remained the overambitious Debora, who appeared to be intoxicated with her new abilities.

"Right! Wonderful! Debs," Gwen said. "Please, let me down, and put something on. You'll catch a cold."

"What if I don't want to?" Debora's lips parted, revealing the pink tip of her tongue. "Kiss me."

"Debbie." Gwen's tone grew stern. "I am serious."

"Alright." Debra withdrew, re-materialising below. She lowered Gwen to the ground floor, allowing Gwen to exhale her bound-up tension. Once again, Gwen handed over new shirts, shorts, and intimates, turning her head aside as her friend dressed.

"Sorry." Debora apologised once she was properly attired. Not been nude seemed to restore her friend's sanity. "I was a little taken there. By my new powers, I mean."

"That's fine." Gwen gave her friend a blokey punch on the arm. "As long as you're alright, Debbie. How do you feel now? No side effects after subsuming the Spirit?"

"I am fine now." Debora paused. "I owe it all to you, Gwen…"

Her friend's words were a little too serious for Gwen to digest comfortably. She had spoken as though Gwen had saved her from certain death; like she somehow owed a debt of life.

"No, Deb, you worked hard too. We're both lucky. I had nothing to do with it."

"I'll pay you back, Gwennie. I swear it. I know that I can now. With this Spirit, I can do it."

"Debs…"

"It's alright, Gwen. Just know that I'll never forget what you did for me."

"Alright." Gwen touched her friend's arm, Debora was breaking out in a terrific swat, but her friend had returned to her flesh and blood self.

"Let's get some rest. We got a long way home tomorrow. I am not sure if we need to check up on the Shield Station either, Opa says he'll get in contact with the authorities."

"Okay."

Turning, Gwen left for her tent, sweating profusely but glad that she had just dodged a hell of a Catapult.

Though they had missed quite a show, the three young bucks remained in good cheer. With supper over, they insisted that the girls take both tents, while they formed a little huddle going around the fire. Likewise, they offered to take watch — first Victa, then Tommy, and finally Tako for the last few hours before dawn.

Gwen was glad for the display of Outback chivalry as she had been wary that Debora may take the opportunity to indulge in impromptu snuggling. Her disinterest aside, she simply had no time for relationships. There were too many things still crowding her plate: the Inter-High, the apprenticeship announcement, her debut as a Void Mage, her woes were endless.

Snug in her sleeping bag, Gwen felt the drain from her Void spells steal the last of her wakefulness. As her eyes closed, so did the dancing lights that had illuminated the perimeter. The camp was plunged into the darkness of the night, lit only by a single campfire, casting shadows that danced against Deadman's Rock.

The jackaroos were up at the crack of dawn. The young bucks went about tidying up the camp and making breakfast with the supplies Gwen had left them in an esky. With ease, the boys made damper and brewed up a heart kettle of English Breakfast, topped off with a few fried eggs and thin rashers of bacon. The girls emerged sometime later, conjuring some water to wash their faces and brush their teeth.

After, while the girls sat and enjoyed the view of the tablelands, the jackaroos packed the saddlebags. As Gwen and Tako weighed the least, she and the jackaroo shared a horse until they reached the main road, where Surya had promised that a 4x4 would be awaiting them. That had been the source of many a wiggling brow from Tommy and Victa until Gwen raised a sparking finger in warning.

It took an hour or so to reach the highway that stretched out into the ultramarine horizon. Another quarter of an hour later, the group met with Rhodes, who was having morning tea himself from the back of his wagon.

"Boys! Good ta see ya all in one piece."

"Boss."

"Boss."

"Mr Rhodes."

"Tako! Close call, eh? Good work on diverting the Land Shark."

"It was nothing, Sir." Tako scratched his chin.

"It was a good thing you did, son. I'll be sure to let everyone know. I'll find a new horse for you, put in a good word."

Tako seemed a little overwhelmed by the praise. He had, after all, performed his duty in the heat of the moment.

"Gwen, Debora."

"Mr Rhodes, Good morning."

"Morning."

The group made some more small talk before the Jackaroos had to take the horses back. The wagon was packed, and Rhodes was ready to chauffeur the girls back to Surya's.

Ding!

Gwen heard the distinct pop of a Message spell.

"Opa?" She cupped an ear.

"Gwen, how goes the hunt?"

"Very well, Opa, it's all done. There are also some exciting new happenings for Debora as a result. I'll tell you later."

"Excellent, I am happy you're both safe."

"Thanks." Gwen gushed.

Surya cleared his throat.

"Yes, Opa?"

Her grandfather's voice took on a more serious tone.

"So, I tried to get in contact with the Shield Station yesterday, and they hadn't gotten back to me. This morning, I got some of my associates to check in with their HQ, and the Hunter Station been out of contact."

"Is that normal, Opa?" Gwen asked quizzically, her crisis senses tingling.

"If we had suffered a mana storm or if there had been a dust devil drifting in, sure. BUT, with clear skies like last night and the day before? Most definitely no. I suspect your Land Shark might have something to do with it."

"Should we check it out? Opa?"

"I would normally say no." Surya hesitated. "But it will take the bureau another day to get to the station, it's a safe zone after all, whereas you're with Rhodes, right?"

"Yes, Opa. I am with Mr Rhodes." Gwen shot a smile towards Rhodes, who raised his water bottle in acknowledgement.

"You should be about two hours away from the station then. Would you mind checking in on the boys there?"

"Not at all, Opa," Gwen affirmed.

"Very good, I knew I could count on you. There's a reward waiting for you when you get back."

"Thanks, Opa."
The spell blinked out.

Gwen informed Debora and Rhodes of their new Quest.

"Sure thing, those boys been keeping us safe. We should check up on them if monsters are sneaking past the shields somehow." Rhodes nodded and tossed his cigarette, grinding it into the dust. "I am confident you girls can handle anything untoward."

"Sure thing, Mr Rhodes." Debora flexed her biceps.

"Umm... Mister Rhodes?" Tommy raised his hand.

"No! Don't!" Tako pushed his mate to the side. "It's nothing, Mr Rhodes."

"What's the matter, boys?" Rhodes asked.
He was sure he had told them to take the horses back to the ranch.

Tako was blazingly red, although the poor sod had been roasting for days.

The other two boys nudged him.

"Just do it, Tako, you're the hero of the day!" Victa kicked his mate.

"You'll never get an opportunity like this again!" Tommy slapped the young man on the back.

Tako stumbled forward, his broad-brimmed hat held tightly in his hands.

"Umm... er... Ms Gwen..."

"Yes, Tako?" Gwen raised a brow. "Well, Mister Takahashi, I should say."

Tako possessed the gaze of a samurai ready to receive a blade to the stomach.

"Could I... shout ya dinner? For like, saving me arse and all."

Debora spat out the water she'd been drinking.
Rhodes dropped the cigarette he was about to light.

"Nothing fancy like..." Tako mumbled. "Just... like at the local pub or something..."

Gwen blinked.
She slowly swallowed a mouthful of water from her flask, then looked around to those around her for guidance. The faces she met were alive with anticipation. Her mind buzzed. It was the first time someone had asked her out, at least in her second life. But Tako was an NoM, and she was a Mage, if so, what was a girl to do?

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Wutosama

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