After copious volumes of Christmas pudding with a massive dollop of ice cream, the girls had watched the Dancing Lights slowly drift outward, dying in darkness.
Now, they retreated into Elvia's bedroom, each pilfering cushions from the other rooms. Gwen was giddy with excitement. A sleepover was something she had never experienced.
It took an hour for the small talk had been exhausted, and then it was time for business. Like back at the dorm, each of the girls took up one corner of the four-post bed, Elvia sat against the headboard, while Gwen and Yue leaned against the posts, buoyed by cushions.
"Alright," Yue began. "Let's get this show on the road! There are no secrets tonight! It's tell-all and show-all! Let's begin with the least traumatic of events. Elvia, out of 10, how do you rate your holiday activities?"
"Umm..." Elvia's big blue eyes rolled in their sockets. "Seven?"
"Ooo, very impressive." Yue cooed dramatically. "I'd say my blood-soaked story of jungle survival is about a nine. What about you, Gwen?"
Gwen chuckled uncomfortably.
"..." Yue raised both eyebrows. "You're not going to tell us that you're a middle-aged man polymorphed into a high school girl, are you?"
"Oh, I wish." Gwen smiled weakly. "I just hope you don't think I am lying or making it up, that's how ridiculous my story is."
"We'll try our best." Yue breathed in deeply. "Elvia, you're up first."
Elvia's face took on an intense concentration. She began to speak, first about her work at the clinic, then later, the main event.
"Every year, our family volunteers for charity work. This year, they were headed to the refugee camp in Manus Island."
"We arrived in early November, so the weather was both hot and humid. The camp we were going to was inland, so we had to take a local charter ship up the river to reach it. The entire waterway was lined with humpies as far as the eye could see..."
Elvia could hardly believe her eyes— or the stench.
The camps along the river extended as far as the eye could see, invariably the same sites of sadness and abandonment. For the inexperienced Elvia, a few hours was all it took for the immutability of the island's poverty, the enormity of it all, to drown her mind.
According to her unce, there were very few rules on the island, the refugees from the Mermen incursion had been given food, some resources, and then largely left to their own devices.
Here on the island, the strong was merely an accident arising from the weakness of others. The rare Mages who lived among the refugees became the natural masters of a place without rightful rulers. Both bullies and thugs, they hoarded food from the supply drops, warred with others too weak to fight, and aggravated murder and mayhem for sport.
For Elvia, their destination was the root of the river, the last bastion of order upon the island. There, the Mageocracy's volunteers had set up a station that offered refugees a place to receive medical attention, ensuring that no pandemic exacerbated an already hopeless situation.
As expected, the station was understaffed and overwhelmed. No matter how many volunteers and families from the cities came to help. The loss of the Micronesian islands to the Mermen created an endless wave of refugees, some escaping from slavery, others from chattel pens, filtering toward the single safe refugee the currents would allow - the Frontier nation of Australia.
The ship's first stop was a place ironically called Eldorado, a large camp housing about two thousand individuals. To Elvia, "Housing" was a word her uncle used ironically, as rugged jungle smothered the island, making the atmosphere intolerable. Indeed, Elvia was already melting under the oppressive heat, travelling up that river was like entering into the primordial past. And behind their camp, the jungle panted, impenetrable and inhospitable.
When the boat finally docked, Elvia immediately cursed her naivety. In Sydney, she had envisioned a field hospital with nurses in white linen. Clerics, NoMs and Healer-Mages alike would be standing shoulder to shoulder, working to alleviate the pain and suffering of the refugees.
What befell her now was a circle transmigrated straight from hell.
For what greeted them were hundreds of refugees, dark faces blunted and burnt by the sun and the humidity, with hungry eyes that swallowed the new arrivals.
"Hans, welcome back." Elvia's uncle was greeted by a young man whose coffee-coloured skin was dark and leathery, peeling here and there. "Had a cyclone come through last week, things have gotten pretty bad."
"Kali, good to see you again. What's the damage?" Hans asked, motioning for Elvia and a few others to join him on the shore.
Elvia stepped onto the plank and was immediately the centre of attention. Compared to their surroundings, she was too clean, too radiant, a pure being in a place full of things that slithered.
Kali rubbed his eyes in disbelief.
"This is?" he asked, his Adam's apple bobbing nervously.
"My niece." Hans introduced Elvia, who waved at him demurely. "Make sure she's safe."
"Of course, Dr. Lindholm, anything."
Kali bowed toward Elvia, currently hiding behind her uncle.
"Anything you need, Mistress Elvia. I shall protect you with my life."
Hans offered Elvia a hand.
"Have courage, Elvia. Kali will see to it that you are safe."
Elvia met the young man halfway.
Kali took her hand and marvelled at its flawlessness before touching it to his forehead.
"I am your servant, Mistress," the native declared.
"He's an Earthen Abjurer." Hans gave the young man a firm pat on the shoulder. "Now, as I was saying, what was the damage? How's the triage centre dealing with the patients?"
"Currently, we have forty blues, twenty-two greens, five yellows and two reds. More are probably coming in."
Elvia gulped. "Uncle, that's a lot of patients."
"Elvia, everyone— Come, let's get to work. Kali, round up some men and move all our spare tables and chairs into the Triage centre. We're starting with the reds. Jones, Thomas, Clyde and Elvia can handle anything Orange and below."
"As you say, Dr Lindholm."
As they moved through the camp, pained faces stumbled from olive-green makeshift camps to gawk and stare. Most of them were topless, the few of them that had clothes were sweat-stained and soiled here and there. When they saw Elvia, a ripple emanated from the crowd, with fingers gesturing at the blonde girl.
Hans frowned. "Kali, what's going on?"
Kali hollered something that the gathering.
"Catapult!" the Abjurer suddenly incanted.
A boulder the size of a man's head flew through the air and struck a coconut palm, snapping it in half. The tree then toppled into the jungle, crushing all protest from the crowd.
"I want a perimeter kept." Hans nodded approvingly. "If they're not sick or dying, they're not welcome."
The Triage centre itself was a mess. Whatever it had stocked was long looted before the medical team had arrived. Hans growled and ordered the beds and tables set up again. Once done, he and the other doctors passed a hand over the empty tables, materialising equipment, potions, and medicinal instruments from his Storage Ring.
"Start sorting the sick. I hope the locals still have the tags the last team left."
Elvia stood at her station, her fingers trembling. Even with a cooling glyph set up in the room, it was stuffy and the air stank of sweat and antiseptic. Her uncle sorted the new patients, prescribed them with the level of healing required, after which the orderlies took them to the station with the relevant Healer.
Her curtains parted with a start. A young woman with a bruised and battered face entered.
"This one needs a Cure Minor, examine her for infectious diseases." The orderly pulled the curtains close once again.
"H..hello," Elvia greeted her with a nervous voice. "I'll be healing you today, please lie down on the table."
The woman obeyed.
Elvia performed as she had been instructed by her uncle, initiating a head to toe. When she pressed on the woman's stomach, her patient winced and began to moan. Elvia placed a hand upon her abdomen and incanted an altered form of Detect Disease and Poison composed for diagnostics.
"Oh... Oh no." Elvia's eyes widened in shock and horror. "You've had an..."
The woman met her eyes with a resignation that made Elvia feel sick. Elvia examined her body with growing horror. The young woman had bruises all over her torso; additionally, there were lacerations on her low body. When she moved to check between her thighs, the woman shook her head.
Elvia looked up.
"Heal, please," the woman begged.
"But I..." Elvia was feeling her eyes watering up. "Protocol says I need to..."
The woman's hand grabbed Elvia's wrist with surprising force.
"Heal, please," she begged again.
"Elvia, tick-tock!" The orderly pulled at Elvia's privacy curtain. "There's a line."
Wordlessly, Elvia placed her hands on the woman's abdomen.
"Heal Minor Wounds. Remove Disease."
A green glow suffused the young woman. She moaned as the flesh knitted with that soul scratching itch which came with magical healing. The woman cried out — the more potent the mending, the worse the bone-deep itch. When finally the magic faded, her patient slipped off the bed, exhausted by the toll of the body's regeneration.
"Sank you," the woman muttered before she stumbled out.
Her next patient was a young boy with a broken arm in a makeshift split.
The next was an older man who leered at her with a toothless grin - he had an infected eye.
The next was another young man who tried to speak to her in a tongue she could not understand. When he got handsy, so the orderly beat him black and blue and threw him out.
Another boy arrived with a gangrenous foot.
Another came, and another went; an endless stream of suffering that seemed without end.
"I am so sorry." Gwen moved closer to the petite girl, putting out her arms to envelop her. The girl hesitated, but ultimately relented and nestled herself between Gwen's arms. "That must have been horrible."
"Uncle said I needed to see the world," Elvia noted sadly. "I don't blame him. I think I really did need to see it. I'd never thought such a place could even exist."
"So then what happened?" Yue could sense that there was more. There was always more.
"Things were okay for a month or so. We went from camp to camp, doing our best. The people who we helped started calling me the Ensel, and we were drawing out folks who were hiding in the jungle."
Elvia suddenly made a crestfallen expression. "And that's when it happened."
Elvia knew there was something wrong when a rough and foreign voice heavy with the accent of the local Tok Pisin dialect shot over the ambient moaning of the patients.
Driven by morbid curiosity, she opened the curtains, revealing a group of thuggish looking natives clothed in what looks like the multi-coloured garbs of woven-grass. Above these tribal garments, the thugs wore western singlets stained with sweat. The speaker was a corpulent man wearing what appeared to be a crown woven from blonde grass.
Across the floor of the triage tent, their eyes met.
Instantly, Elvia's heart sunk.
"Who's the Kin' here?" the man said in a mix of local dialect and English.
"I am." Hans stepped from the group of impatient-looking doctors. To the man's surprise, none of the staff looked particularly afraid, merely annoyed. "Where are you from, friend? What we have here is a medical facility; there are no HDMs nor precious metals for you to loot."
Elvia knew from where the man hailed. He was probably from a local tribe and having Awoken as a Mage, now fancied himself the king of his tiny corner of the earth. It was the typical story here. The local warlords had instigated almost all of the conflict with the refugees.
In the past, the Mageocracy had attempted to quail the locals with force of arms. That had ended badly, and here was the end-result of their failed colonial efforts.
"I am a pawa-ful Magician," the man said. "I hear that you have the Ensel here. I have come to take her as my meri."
Her uncle blinked and quickly glanced at Elvia. She recalled her uncle hinting that there might be some trouble, but had also anticipated that no one would bother the doctors literally in the process of saving lives.
From the looks of it, her uncle has underestimated the allure of a pale, blonde healer to these local warmongers.
"I am afraid that is not possible," Hans apologised, speaking slowly so the man could understand. "Elvia is not for you."
The man grinned, pointing at Elvia.
"Is this the Ensel?" The man pointed.
Elvia's eyes grew as wide as hen's eggs.
"Come to Luluai!" The man walked towards her.
Elvia backed away, bumping into a table, sending its cargo of steel trays and syringes tumbling. Her uncle clicked his tongue, dismayed by her clumsiness.
"Kali!" Hans called out. No reply came.
"Ha! Your bodyguard is defeated. He was no match for me in a pait!" the man boasted.
"Did you kill him?" her uncle's face grew stone cold.
"Who knows?" The man shrugged. "Now, Ensel, come with me. I will treat you nicely, and then we can do the biktaun as maritman and meri."
"Was he gentle on the first night? I can't believe you didn't invite me to the wedding." Yue jested rancorously, chuckling at the morbidness of her imagination.
"Yue!" Elvia protested. "It's not funny!"
"Alright, alright, then what happened?" Yue apologised, putting up her hands.
"Then, Uncle got super angry..."
Elvia's uncle was a patient man, but even a saint's patience had a limit.
When the village idiot boasted that he had bested Kali, Elvia witnessed her uncle's upset.
In the week they had spent together, Kali had been beyond helpful. Without the local man, the team's progress would be set back many years, perhaps losing access to entire areas of the island altogether.
The other doctors, Elvia among them, felt Hans' anger rise like pent-up magma rising through the crust. They knew what was about to happen next and began to find cover.
"You want to try me, mon?" The man's eyes glowed. A sloshing sound bubbled from the ground. To their surprise, the earth around the man began to liquify.
An Ooze Mage? Elvia recognised talent.
It was a rare talent.
The man could have made himself something in the cities. Ooze Mages were one of the rarer Primary para-elementals, specialising in protective and debilitating effects.
Here on the island though, the Mage was a source of pure misery.
"Elvia, you might want to look away," Hans warned.
Elvia could hardly move. She'd never seen her uncle fight before, and she'd never seen an Ooze Mage before.
"Oo Supia—" The Ooze Mage began, but before he even got halfway, Elvia's Uncle finished a tier 5 healing magic.
"LIGHT OF ABSOLUTION!"
A pillar of light surrounded the man. A non-existent shield of mud instantly evaporated, revealing a pulsing beam of pure Positive Energy.
The shock of losing his shield disrupted the man's tribal spell, and their assailant wondered for a moment if he was about to die. When he did not, he gazed upon Hans with an evil grin.
"Your spell does nothing," the Mage mocked her uncle.
Then suddenly, the smile froze on his face.
His body began to swell. First his limbs, then his torso. Within the man's twisting abdomen, organs tore and gashed, bloating with cancerous cells. There came a sound of muscles tearing and bones wrenched from their sockets. In his final moments, the man's head grew the size of a watermelon, or perhaps a boil on the verge of violent expulsion.
"Elvia! Take cover!" Her uncle dived behind the table. "Elvia, back behind the curtains!"
The crew ducked behind whatever they could.
Elvia stared, fascinated with shock.
Then, the human water balloon exploded.
Yue dry heaved.
Gwen cradled Elvia like her baby, hugging her whole-heartedly and squeezing her tight. The poor girl! Her poor Evee!
"I— I was so glad I had my mask on," Elvia sobbed. "Otherwise some of it might have gotten in my mouth..."
"Elvia! No!" Yue rolled around the bed, unable to control herself.
"Uncle told me that this is why we Positive Energy casters need to stay away from the front lines. Our spells are slow, takes time to manifest, easily shielded against, and can be unexpectedly inhumane."
"How is that seven out of ten? I am being traumatised for life here!"
"Oh, you poor, poor thing!" Gwen kissed the top of Elvia's head, feeling her soft, boneless body in her arms, not ever wanting to let her Evee go.
Yue recovered, panting as she laid on her back.
"Phew, alright, that was intense." Yue fanned herself with a hand.
"Your turn?" Gwen asked.
"Well, I don't know if mine is still a nine after that, but alright."
Yue lunged forward, obscenely bouncing on the bed to face the girls.
Gwen covered Elvia's eyes.
"Well, I was with Master Alesia," Yue began, her eyes clouding with recollection. "So naturally it all began with a Fire Ball..."