Gwen wasn't sure herself if she wanted to entertain the smitten young man or not. Yet, at the same time, what was the harm? Surely she could get shouted dinner, and it would be no big deal. She hadn't felt like an ordinary woman since she arrived in this world. Wasn't this the most mundane thing that could ever happen to a girl?
"Sure thing," she replied quickly, not wishing to appear hesitant. "Maybe tonight?"
"Ye… Yes, please!" Tako stammered. The sense of immense relief on his face was unmistakable. "I'll make the reservations!"
She wanted to comment that the local pub didn't take reservations, but didn't want to embarrass the boy.
"Hmmph," Rhodes grunted, an indication that he would give Tako a tongue lashing later.
"If you're finished taking up our time, Takahashi, we got a Shield Station to attend to."
"Right you are, Mr Rhodes!" Tako gleefully turned and hopped on Gwen's mare. "I'll see you guys back in town tonight! I'll be at the pub at seven!"
The long drive to the shield station was as dull as Gwen had anticipated. The Monotonous landscapes extended as far as the eye could see - endless stretches of stunted shrubbery with the occasional sighing she-gums trailing over waterless billabongs.
Then, like a dark finger pointing toward the heavens, the Shield Station appeared. Like an ominous obelisk, the structure extended until they could see its obsidian-laden base embedded into the earth.
About a hundred meters from their destination, Rhodes rolled the 4x4 to a stop.
"Something ain't right," the rancher muttered. "No guards, someone should have stopped us by now."
Gwen felt it too, sensing a premonition of trouble. The last time they had visited a Shield Station near the Royal National, they had been swamped by almost a dozen Mages who inspected every panel on their school's bus.
"Let's proceed on foot," she advised. "Mr Rhodes, can you remain here?"
"No worries, lass. I'll be right here," Rhodes assured the girls.
The duo left the wagon.
Wanting to be cautious, Debora slathered on an assortment of self-buffs from Enhanced Strength to Sandskin to Magic Weapons.
Beside the Transmuter, Gwen fixed her sunscreen coverage. She didn't have any buffs of her own, and Debora wasn't proficient enough to fortify others.
After that, with Debora taking point, the girls made for the Station proper. After checking to make sure that they were within the range of a Divination Tower, Gwen Message on her phone before they proceeded.
"Opa, we're here. No one met us at the gate. We're going in to investigate."
When no reply came after a minute, the girls proceeded.
The gate to the compound was a gigantic three-meter tall gate wrought in steel. Debora pushed slowly, exerting enhanced strength, the gate shuddering as it moved back, exposing a gap just large enough for the two of them to enter.
Inside the compound, there were still no signs of the inhabitants. Something was most definitely amiss, though the girls couldn't see anything out of the ordinary. Now inside the courtyard, they studied the fabled Shield Station. Unlike the Generator Stations, this far out in the Green Zone, the Station was merely a waypoint - a relay station.
Still, a contingent of Abjurers should be present, mayhap even a Transmuter on rotation. The landscape of the Outback had frequent storms both hot and wet, meaning there a continuous process of replacing wear and tear components existed.
The entrance into the shielding chamber itself was a set of inscribed double doors set with Glyphs and wards that reacted with extreme prejudice towards uninvited guests. Now, the doors were slightly ajar, their Glyphs of warning cold and muted.
"Let me try something."
Debora raised a hand and sent out a shifting swirl of sand. The sand sculpture snaked its way towards the door and pushed on the dark obsidian surface. There was the sound of hinges screaming in protest as it inched inward, but no reaction from the warding magic.
Inside, it was entirely dark.
"How should we proceed?" Debora asked.
The marten struck a heroic pose after landing with a lightning-fast summersault.
"Go check out if there's any danger."
Ariel regarded its Master sceptically.
The marten poked its head through the gap between the doors, its pupils expanding to take in the low light. An oily, black button nose sniffed the surroundings as Ariel entered, skittering here and there noting this and that.
"Eee! Ee! Eee-EE!"
"What's it saying?" Debora asked, impressed with Gwen's versatility.
"..." Gwen attempted to process her Emphatic Link. Unfortunately, her marten was too limited in its intelligence to relay intelligence in an intelligible manner. "I think it's safe to go inside."
"Ee!" The marten glanced at Gwen smugly.
Again, Debora took point as they entered the atrium.
Inside, it was too dark for the girls to see.
Gwen willed the half dozen or so wisps to enter the room.
Her spell soon illuminated the surroundings, shedding light upon the unspeakable horrors that lay within.
"Jesus Christ, Gwen." Debora gulped.
"Oh, my God." Gwen suppressed a gag.
It was as if someone had taken human bodies and made them into a floor mural. There was dust everywhere, covering every surface at least an inch thick. And underneath the abstract coverage of the ashen substance, the girls could see the entwined shapes of human bodies contorted in horrific gestures before their expiration.
Debora stepped back, bumping against Gwen.
Gwen meanwhile, felt an incredible sense of déjà vu.
The dust— that feeling of death and decay; it felt as though she had all seen it before.
"Those people... they're all dead..." Debora stated the obvious. Gwen had to remind herself that unlike her self, this was Debora's first time seeing victims of arcane murder.
Comparatively, not had she seen only seen dead bodies, but she had also been responsible for them.
Gwen wanted to push past, but Debora clung on to her arm.
"They're dead, Gwen! They're dead!"
"Shhh... it's alright, Debbie. Let me through. I need to check something."
Debora turned to look at her with an expression of disbelief.
"Surely... you're not going to touch them?!"
"I may need to touch them, yes."
"Gwen! No! You can't!"
Gwen gave her companion's arm a tight squeeze.
Debora wordlessly stepped aside.
Gwen knelt to take a better gander at the human forms encased in the fossilised powder. She carefully brushed her fingers across the face of one of the figures. Where the tips of her fingers touched, the caked dust felt apart to reveal a woman that looked as though she had aged innumerably in mere seconds. Her cheeks were sallow and drained, her wispy hair falling from her loose scalp in clumps.
Negative Energy Drain— Gwen's heart sank. She had not only seen this power before, but she had also experienced it. It was power drawn from the Elemental Plane of Dust. Her mind raced. Her Master had stated that it was exceedingly rare for Mages to awaken to anything related to Negative Energy. The powers that be simply did not gift the Affinity of death to beings that still flowed with life.
Could it be Edgar? Her mind turned. Was Edgar here? Or was this the work of someone else.
Gwen felt her breath beginning to quicken as she rose from her investigation of the body. Just the thought of facing her assailant again gave her the goosebumps. He had been the first man Gwen wounded fatally with her spells. She could still see his twisted, malignant face contorted with hatred and malice as his Contingency Ring sent him to safety. That man had been a Mind Mage, and he had gotten deeper in her head than any other being in this world. He had touched her, not just a depredation of her body, but a violation of her soul. He had seen what lies within her astral body, and in the deepest recesses of her mind, her true self.
"Gwen? Gwen!" Debora was rocking her shoulder.
"I am alright—" Gwen said, realising that she was sweating all over.
"Let's get out of here," Debora requested with a quavering voice.
"We need to go a little deeper," Gwen urged. She wanted to know if Edgar was indeed here. If so, she'd have her Familiars ready for him. This time, she would show him a thing or two about Negative Energy.
Debora paused, unwilling to descend.
"Debs—" Gwen was about to say that Debora could stay up to while she went down with Ariel and Caliban, but her friend spoke first.
"No, I'll come with," Debora affirmed weakly. "I'll take point."
Gwen nodded. She would prefer not going at it alone.
"Debs, before you make that call, I need to tell you something."
"I suspect that Edgar might be involved in this somehow."
The girl's expression paled.
"Yes, THAT Edgar."
Debora's hands moved over her abdomen. Edgar had drained her too, made incisions here and there, bleeding her dry to keep her weak when he'd captured them. The Dust Devil, the sensation of being invaded, it was all very fresh indeed.
"I don't blame you, Debs, if you want to stay up here," Gwen intoned carefully, watching her friend's lips tremble. How could she blame Debora if her friend was unable to face one of their most traumatic moments? For all Debora's bluster, the girl was just sixteen, a child in Gwen's eyes. How could she ask a child to accompany her into danger?
"I'll go," Debora announced firmly. Below her obdurate eyes, she was white-knuckled and shivering.
Gwen nodded. "One moment."
She produced her phone and again dialled Surya.
"Opa? It's Gwen. We're at the Station..."
Ding! This time, the Message connected.
"Gwen? Good, are you safe? What did you find?"
Gwen briskly explained that they had found desiccated corpses drained of all vitality, that she suspected the culprit of the Serpent incident.
"You should leave right now!" Surya's voice cracked like a whip. "Fool girls! You're just students! Just go and get Rhodes and get back here this instant!"
"No, Grandfather." Gwen's voice was stern and determined. "I need to make sure that Edgar was here. I need to face him. I can do it, Grandfather. I have Ariel and Caliban with me, as well as Debora."
Surya growled. His granddaugther was far too stubborn.
"Then promise me that you will be careful," Surya said finally. "Run if you have to. I'll get Rhodes to bring the wagon around."
Gwen turned to Debora.
Her friend double-checked her buffs, then inclined her chin affirmatively.
The duo proceeded past the atrium and its display of corpses, making for the pit. Via a spiral staircase, the central portion of the Station dug deep into the Core, search out man ley-lines.
With on hand on the rails, the girls descended.
"Why is this place so... empty?" Debora's voice quivered.
As high school students, they had no idea what a Shielding Station's pit was supposed to look like, but even they knew that something was amiss.
The textbooks showed that a relay was supposed to have an array of Creature Cores maintained by Abjurers. Together, they fed abjuring mana into the Large Shielding Resonator. The Resonator itself was supposed to be a colossal crystal the size of an automobile. Its resonation of wavelength frequencies was what created the invisible shielding between Stations that repelled magical creatures by attacking their Mana Cores.
Yet, at the bottom, the girl realised they were gazing towards precisely nothing— where the giant crystal was supposed to be, there was now only emptiness.
"Where did it go?" Debora asked rhetorically.
Gwen had nothing to say. A crystal of that size weighed at least a ton. Moving it by hand was impossible. Someone would have to first remove the Core from its mooring by overcoming its protective warding, then store it within an Extra-Large Storage Ring. As the owner of a medium-sized ring, she knew how much effort it took to stow items of a particular size and volume. The sheer amount of mana required to place an object of that size and mass into storage was mind-boggling.
Could she overcome the protective kill-Glyphs etched into the moorings? Not without a death wish.
Could she or Debora stow an object of such size and density? Not without knocking themselves out like a light.
If so, could they defeat whoever had been down here?
Gwen was no longer so sure.
"Maybe it's best if we return," she announced quietly.
"Agreed." Debora was more than happy to comply.
They carefully ascended. The way up was an exercise compared to the ease of descent, ensuring that both girls were sweat-drenched and half-choked by the dust air.
Finally, huffing and puffing, the girl arrived back at the atrium.
"Er— Gwen?" Debora shivered. "Where are the corpses?"
Where the bodies had been, there were now three trails in the dust.
"Shit," Gwen swore.
The Shielding Crystal was gone, which meant that there was nothing here to prevent wayward spirits and other Magical Creatures from filtering into the Safe Zones.
Her Familiar duo materialised behind the girls, taking up the flank and rear.
Gwen wanted to activate her detection spells, but Debora was right there beside her. It wasn't time yet to let her friend know.
"EE!" Ariel hissed at a particular section of the atrium.
Gwen conjured her Dancing Lights and sent them toward the dim corridor.
There were three humanoid figures.
Three desiccated figures, each hunched over, making scraping sounds.
"What the hell is that?" Debora mouthed nervously. "Weren't they dead?"
"Now they're Undead..." Gwen felt her scalp crawl.
The trio turned to regard the girls, their eyes smouldered like coals of a cold blue fire. The corpses were holding chipped stones that looked like daggers. Gwen's mind scanned through her Monster Manual classes. Considering the stone weapon and the glowing eyes, she had a rough idea of what they now faced.
"Malingee," Gwen announced. "Possessed bodies."
A local threat, Malingee were nocturnal spirits that possessed the bodies of the dead. They were especially attracted to the corpses of victims who died of violent causes.
"SKAAARRK!!" the creatures howled at the girls, their high-pitched half-scream horrible to behold. The girls grew momentarily stunned as the monsters crouched, launching themselves like bolts from a ballista.
"Debbie!" Gwen screeched, forcing her body to move. Ariel instantly grew to combat form and let loose a blast of needles, pinning one creature to the floor. Caliban likewise, took its pound of flesh from Gwen before launching a barbed tongue that pierced another corpse, pinning it to the wall.
"Sand Wall!" Debora recovered just in time.
The remaining creature leapt itself into the air, only to be met with Debora's Wall of Sand, trapping it within its tightly packed particles. It was the boon of having a spirit operate one's spells independently, one that demonstrated the blessing of a cooperative spirit.
The duo watched as corpses writhed. Caliban seemed to have no interest in consuming the Negative Energy creatures.
Gwen incanted the signature Evocation spell, watching her two targets blaze blue and white before the malevolent Spirits perished. Her Master had once told her that lightning was exceptionally proficient against Undead creatures.
Debora seemed less sure of what to do with her target. She certainly did not want to punch it or kick the raving cadaver.
"Debbie, hold it down. I'll finish it."
"No, I'll do it."
The sand wall tightened. There was a sound of crushing bone, then a wail escaped from the creature, fading the darkness.
As quickly as it began, their fight was over.
"Lord Almighty." Debora breathed out, her eyes full of question. Did she kill a creature or had she killed a person, she wasn't sure. "Goodness, that was intense."
"Good work, Debbie."
Their eyes met. Debora seemed to regain some measure of herself.
"Yeah... Wow. We did it. Just you and me."
"Yep. Let's get out of here first. Ariel! Caliban!"
Her Familiars returned.
They made their way past the gate, where an anxious Rhodes awaited them.
"Ready to go? Surya seemed rather insistent that youse be back in town." He regarded the half-open doors of the Shielding Station nervously. "Were things alright back there? There was a hell of a firework display from what I could see."
"Yeah, we've had enough, I think."
Rhodes nodded, choosing laconicism as they made the four-hour drive back to town.
Thanks to Caliban, Gwen was exhausted, opting to take a long nap at the back of the wagon. Debora sat beside her, leaning against her shoulder so that propped by one another, they dozed off to sleep.
When they finally arrived in town, Rhodes took the girls to luncheon. It was almost early afternoon by now, and the long drive had depleted their energy. Gwen groggily wandered through the cafeteria and picked up a serving of fish and chips, nibbling away at the greasy lunch absentmindedly.
Seeing her exhausted state, Rhodes asked her if he should take them back to the estate. Gwen reminded him that she had promised Tako a dinner date, to which Rhodes casually mentioned that it was no big deal if she wanted to cancel.
To Rhodes' surprise, Gwen refused.
"Alright, I'll get a room for the two of you." The rancher indicated to the inn; a place endearing named the Cock and Bull.
There, he paid for a room so that Gwen could sleep off her fatigue. Just in case, he also felt it far safer for his wellbeing should Surya possess knowledge of this impending development, and so he called the old Magus.
"What?! A DATE?!" came the howling voice of Surya. "How dare that whelp! I'll be right there!"
Rhodes shut down his Message Device, realising with absolute certainty that he should not have called the crazy old Enchanter.
Tako dressed up in his finest clothes.
He looked a damn treat, at least according to the advice of a sniggering Tommy and his gang of Jackaroo mates. He wasn't exactly sure how trustworthy the fashion advice of a half dozen young men who didn't own a tux between the lot of them could deliver, but he had seen the men's magazines, and he felt that he looked the part.
He had also arrived at the pub an hour earlier than the proposed time. With his hair slicked back in the same oily colour as his leather jacket, he pulled open the door and nodded at the Publican.
The Publican, an old jackaroo himself, had heard of Tako's endeavour and had seen to it personally that a romantic corner was segregated for the young man. He'd even got his Missus to snip off the head of one of her prized roses, placing it in a "fine Chinese" mug at the table's centre.
One of Tako's mates, Jacko, opted to play waiter for their dinner.
Taking a seat, Tako poured over the Outback menu.
Chicken schnitzel parmigiana
For dessert, the Publican made his wife cook up some of her prized bread and butter pudding.
The Publican didn't know if his pub would survive the date, but he did know it was going to be a spectacle. The town would speak of Tako's fuck up for months, years even. Tonight was the night that Tako got lucky with a Lady Mage, or died trying. All the gallery had to do was drink and watch. Tonight was a night to remember, and the Publican was a man with a long memory.
Gwen took a deep breath. She was ready.
Debora had fussed with her hair for the last hour, and now she was good to go. Looking in the mirror, she plucked at her dress, smoothing out the folds. She had allowed Debora to picked out the garment, a decision which Gwen now deeply regretted.
She wasn't even sure where Debora had found the dress. She had wanted to steer her friend away from their mid-morning encounter, and the date planning had proved a substantial distraction.
Then somehow, during her nap, Debora had arranged a dress, hair, and even found a pair of china-blue pumps exactly Gwen's size. The dress was a tight fit as well, almost to the inch, making her question Debora's knowledge of her figure.
As for the date itself, Gwen grew uncertain.
Even in her old world, she'd never been one for dates. A career woman, she had flings, but rarely cared for dates where the whole purpose of the engagement was the date itself. Occasionally, the Facebook feeds of her compatroits with their husbands, kids, and Golden Retrievers set on her edge, but she rarely felt depressed for long. For a single career woman, there were worse things in life than a water view house and two cats.
"Are you certain?" Gwen examined herself in the mirror.
She was wearing a long one-piece cheongsam that emphasised rather fictitiously her curves, thanks to Debora's copious application of bra padding. The silk dress also a long slit that ran up her thighs, suggestively exposing her thighs as she moved.
"I love it!" Debora assured her. "He's Chinese, after all."
"Takahashi is a Japanese name..." Gwen corrected her friend, but Debora would have none of it.
"Close enough." Her untravelled friend advised expertly. "You look so lovely, Gwen. I could just eat you up."
"... thanks?" Gwen replied. The dress was a little too liberal for her tastes.
Debora led her to the door, then slapped her on the bottom, making her yelp. From the second story, Gwen could see that Tako was waiting below.
"Go get em!" Debora's face was full of mischief.
Gwen left the motel room, her thin heels striding towards the edge of the bannister rails.
She looked down.
Fifty expectant faces gazed up at her, their shit-eating grins split from ear to ear.
"God damn it." Gwen gulped. "Debbie..."