"An empowered Fireball specifically," Yue gushed. "The very first Metamagic that Alesia taught me. It's Evocation mixed with Transmutation."
Yue wanted to begin her recount in medias res. The girls, however, demanded context as they couldn't make head nor tail of Yue's pyrotechnic, Michael Bay epic.
"Alright, alright, sheesh. Give me a second..."
Yue had to recount several times to get her story straight and figured out the chronology of her flashfire flashbacks.
"So, we're on Moreton Island, off the Gold Coast. The coast guard had requested heavy ordinance from the Tower, which meant Alesia. Master was already gunning for an opportunity to get me blooded, so she agreed on my behalf."
Yue went on about how she was still half asleep when Alesia grabbed her, then flew out to catch the troopship with Yue in her pyjamas.
"The Island was a FOB between the Great Barrier Reef and the Coral Sea. As for why it's there, it's because of that mumbo-jumbo we learned in Geography class— trade routes to the South China Sea and what not. The Tower lost contact with the base after a cyclone came through in October."
"Anyway, the troop carrier ran into some trouble along the way. We got rammed by a giant squid that tried to topple the ship. Master killed it, and we ate grilled squid. Squid tentacles as thick as your leg? Yes Please! Then when we're almost to the island, we got boarded by Crab-folk, I think. Anyway, they were surprisingly good steamed with soy and ginger. We kept going, and as we landed, these fish folks were attacking the harbour. Boom! Sashimi two way, with chilli Fish head soup."
The other two girls regarded one another.
"You ate them?" Gwen asked.
"Raw?" Elvia said.
Yue blinked. "Was I not supposed to?"
Gwen suppressed a gag. Should Yue have eaten her prey? There were no right answers to that. The consumption of Magical Creatures was essential in the development of human civilisation and its magical war-potential. At school, the girls ate them by the tableful, but those weren't intelligent creatures, or were they? There was a Caliban's length of ethical dilemmas that assailed Gwen as she tried to step into Yue's shoes.
"You said PEOPLE— talking, walking, sapient people. With villages and stuff. Civilisation." Gwen reiterated, slowly realising how ridiculous she must sound.
Yue regarded her friend puzzlingly.
Sometimes, Gwen said the darnedest things.
"Fine," Yue sighed. "Anthropomorphic Magic Creatures. Better?"
Gwen felt her gut clench.
"Anyway, Evee, the sashimi was amazing. So fresh, you could taste the mana just rolling off your tongue."
"That sounds delicious," Elvia cooed.
Gwen tasted bile, wondering if there were vegetarian Mages.
"Regardless, we arrived at the island, and its a fiery mess. By the way, Alesia brought the whole team with us— do you remember Billy and all that?"
Elvia did not.
"There's Jonas, Alesia's Cleric. Paul's the translocation Conjurer-Transmuter. Taj the Water Abjurer and Billy is the Diviner. He's responsible for communications. He asked after you several times Gwen, I think you made an impression on him."
Gwen's cheeks burned pink. She recollected that the last time they met, she wore nothing but a robe.
"So we landed," Yue continued, using her voice as much as her hands. "Off the bat, Alesia gets me buffed - Flight, Iron Skin, Aid, Resist Elements— the works. I am all jacked up and ready to go, you know? She's like, go out there and get me some crab legs! I am all like, 'Yes Ma'am!'"
"That's right! So we took off from the troop carrier and rocked that bitch like the Valkyries of legend..."
Yue watched her first empowered Fireball bloom into a scarlet blossom of death, sending bits of fish-folk spiralling like rag-dolls here and there and everywhere.
The Murloc, or perhaps the Sahuagin— Yue couldn't tell from this distance, scattered and ran for cover. The Mermen had thought themselves safe after overpowering the outpost, and now paid the price of their naivety. A few of the legged-fish took to the fort itself, throwing spears and shooting poison-tipped arrows at the two Mages from behind cover. Their ineffective weapons ricocheted from Yue and Alesia's Iron Skin enhanced bodies, making long white marks where they struck.
Alesia halted Yue's immediate retaliation and fired a mote of flame through a window. Her Scarlet Caracal spirit could differentiate between friend and foe, and so could effortless purge the fish-eyed Murks.
In the next instant, the windows blew out. A dozen fish-folks, blackened and seared, tumble from the second-storey window.
"Match my speed and follow my flight trail. Attack every second volley. Beware Danger Close as the ground troops move in."
"Yes, Master," Yue obeyed enthusiastically.
Master and student circled the base while Jonas and the rest of the team arrived with the reinforcements, clearing out the 'Murks' as they went. Yue observed a creature getting skewered by a spear of stone that erupted from the earth. According to Alesia, Mermen without a dorsal fin were Murlocs; those with fins were Fish-folk.
Yue sent out her new spells, testing their combat effectiveness.
Radiant lines erupted from her hands, jet-streams of fire so hot as to turn white and blue struck the little diminutive fishes below, taking off limbs and heads, setting others ablaze. When a cluster of three or more appeared, waving their primitive spears, Yue sent opted for a Fireball, blowing the unarmored beings into giblets of smouldering meat.
They were on their third pass when a bone spear shot from nowhere and skewered Yue mid-fight, sending her tumbling down below. Yue's iron-skin held, but the sneak attack had winded her. With a yelp, Yue fell. For an Apprentice, her borrowed Flight spell lacked the means to be maintained without concentration.
Alesia watched her Apprentice impact the sandstone wall, skidding off the sides to land in a heap on the blackened bitumen below. Yue's Master cursed under her breath, then somersault turn in the air, diving for her student.
The sneak attack had come from a window on the third floor. Below, already several Murlocs were converging on the fallen Yue. Caught for time, Alesia sent a Maximised Fireball into the window before landing with a flourish, the explosion behind her sending out a shower of glass and aluminium.
"Yue, you alright?"
"Yeah, just a little dazed." Yue slapped her thighs to offset the concussion, stumbling upright, bracing against the wall.
"Think you can handle this one?" Alesia tested her apprentices' resolve.
Yue nodded, clearing her grogginess through force of will. The Murks was coming closer now, half a dozen of them armed with bone spears and long daggers of Megalodon teeth. Heeding her Master's lessons, Yue waited for a moment more before making a semi-circled gesture with both hands.
"Wall of Fire!" she incanted, pushing past the throbbing pain pounding her brain.
A semi-circle ring of orange plasma burst into existence, catching the Murlocs as they advanced. Yue grunted as she channelled more mana into the phenomenon. Ahead, her flames flared and roared, stoked as though by an invisible wind, spluttering blue and white-hot, turning her foe into charcoal.
"Phew—" Yue fell to one knee just as the final Murloc writhed and died. Her Master caught her as she sank to her knees, slinging Yue's arm across her shoulders.
"Good work, Apprentice."
Yue beamed at her Master and idol.
"Let's get you back to Jonas."
"Sorry I got hit."
"It happens to the best of us. You'll learn in time," Alesia replied encouragingly. "Remember to be situationally aware at all times. Don't get distracted by fireworks. Fire and forget and never stop moving, never fly in a straight line."
By the time they got back to Jonas, the landing force had mopped up the stragglers. Billy had made a round through the perimeter, ensuring that no Murlocs remained on the base.
"I'll go get the crystal running," Taj offered.
Alesia removed a Storage Ring, tossing him the spare Barrier Core. With the creatures this close, the base had likely lost its original. Unlike the barriers closer to the cities, these coastal stations were regional and isolated, and mostly self-powered.
"I'll keep an eye out," Paul said, then left with Taj.
Jonas approached, gazing worriedly at Yue.
"Injured already?" he remarked, placing a hand on her shoulder. "This is going to itch. Cure Light!"
Yue shuddered as her bruises faded and her cracked bones mended. By the time the spell had run its course, cold sweat had soaked through her shirt.
"Thanks, Jonas," Yue replied between clenched teeth.
"Allie, are you sure about taking Yue into live combat?" Jonas questioned his commander.
"Absolutely," Alesia said. "Yue can handle it. She's like me. Hell, I had a four-digit kill count by the time I was fifteen. By Yue's age, I was a Major."
"That was a war." Jonas protested.
"What do you call this then?" Alesia smirked roguishly, expansively moving her hands across the vista of the burnt and crumbled courtyard.
"You know damn well what I mean," Jonas growled.
"I am fine." Yue focused on a spot on the floor, forcing herself to resist the urge to pull her skin open so she could gnaw at her itching bones.
"Well, I know Alesia thinks you're a tough nut, but take care of yourself. Don't be reckless." Jonas advised, rubbing his chin and scratching his handlebar moustache.
"I will, thanks Jonas," Yue replied innocently, stretching out her arms, punishing the elasticity of the unforgiving fabric. Flustered, Jonas looked way for something else to occupy his mind.
Alesia chuckled. Jonas was an old celibate. That's why they called him Father Jonas. He was also a worrywart, though Jonas made a damn-good Healer.
A thrum rang through the air. The barrier was back.
"There we go." Alesia patted Yue on the back encouragingly. "Mission accomplished. Easiest 10k you ever earned. How was it?"
Yue seemed stunned by the news.
"We get paid for this?"
Alesia regarded her apprentice dubiously.
"You don't think we do this for free, do you? The Tower may be many things, but a charity it's not!"
"That's way too much money."
"Why?" Alesia raised an exquisite brow. "I am a Battalion Level Magus, and you're my cute little ensign! Even you receive Danger Pay!"
"It's still too much, Master." Yue protested. She had a total of four hundred roo-dollars in her student card, and that was after half a year of savings. She usually ate from the school canteen to save money on luncheons and dinners.
"Bosh! You have any idea how much money you need to be a top rate Mage?"
"Nope," Yue confessed.
"Boots of Flying, Nagaskin armour, Ioun Stones, Combat Wands, Health potions, Mana potions..."
Yue shivered at the thought of so much HDMs flowing out of her account.
"I get you, Master."
"Good, now let's see how the Harvesters are going. We get to keep fifty per cent of everything we kill.
It took the harvester Mages and their NoM helpers the better part of the afternoon to gather the bodies and dig out the mana cores. Most of the Cores had shattered, although the team managed to recover about twenty odd stones of various sizes.
"About two thousand HDM's worth Ma'am," one of the crewmen reported. "Would you like to take delivery now?"
"Sure, shoot it over."
Yue watched Alesia pass her ring over her share of the Creature Cores. She turned to Yue.
"If you sense a powerful elemental presence in a core, it means there's a spirit in there. If you manage to find one, then you're in luck. A minor Spirit sells for about two to three thousand HDMs, an intermediate-tier Spirit like my Caracal, expect up to twenty thousand HDMs."
Yue's teeth felt weak.
"You starting to get the reason why I dragged you in here?"
Yue wasn't big on critical thinking, but even she could sense a windfall when her piggy bank clinked.
"To make Crystals?" she ventured carefully.
"Exactly!" Alesia wrapped an arm around her apprentice, rubbing two fingers together. "Three things make a good Mage— good breeding, good training, and good resources. If you want to catch up to Gwen, Tiger, you better be rolling in the dough."
"How much did you make?" Gwen watched as Yue imitated Alesia rubbing two fingers together in a conniving manner.
"Hee..." Yue snickered proudly. "Wouldn't you like to know!"
"Come on, don't be evasive."
"Take a guess."
Elvia lifted five fingers.
"Five HDMs? Evee— cut me some slack."
"She means five hundred." Gwen put into perspective Elvia's guess.
"Bingo, just about."
Gwen tried to whistle but succeeding in only blowing a raspberry over Elvia's head.
Thankfully, Elvia's eyes were already glazed over. She had her family's support, but that was different. She'd never had more than a hundred HDMs to her name.
"Nice one, Yue!"
"Hehe, thanks." Yue thrust her chest out proudly.
"What happened next?" Elvia wanted to know what was so terrible about Yue's jungle island adventure.
"So yeah, we stayed on the island for a while cause we had to Purge the place. Alesia used this opportunity to run me haggard. Day in and day out, it was 'Buff up! Fly out!' 'Blow this up! Blow that up!' 'Search and Destroy!' You know how it is, right? After a while, I kind of got used to it. Pretty sure we burned down half the island by the end."
Unfortunately, the girls did not "how it is".
"You want highlights? Alright." Yue relented after they pressed for more specifics. "Well, there's this thing, you see that we found... but Nah, it's not that interesting."
Yue blanched, her facial muscles froze into a terrible grin.
Gwen felt her heart lurch. Something horrible must have happened to faze the unflappable Yue.
"Yeah—" Yue puckered her lips.
"You don't have to tell it if you don't want to." Gwen moved across the bed and took her friend's hand, noting with mild alarm that Yue was cold and clammy. "Yue, are you okay?"
Elvia reached over and channelled a few motes of positive energy into their friend, filling her body with a warm and fuzzy glow.
"Thanks, Evee." Yue swallowed. "Okay, I am going to tell the story."
The girls nodded.
"No secrets," Yue reiterated.
"None." Gwen's stomach lurched, mindful of its 'secrets'.
"Alright." Yue seemed to have calmed herself. She squeezed Gwen's hand and began to relay the tale; her eyes focused on a middle distance. "So, I was out hunting when I ran into a Murloc Spawning Pool..."
Yue had read in her sociology textbook that humanity was the only beings who kept chattel, mass farming domesticated quasi-magical beasts to provide food for its burgeoning citizenry.
Before her discovery, she had been out on the lake's edge stalking prey. Alesia had a simple rule for survival training. You kill, you eat. To wit, Yue had been equipped with a small Storage Ring and a tracking amulet, then sent off into the Orange Zone to find dinner.
Armed with a basic lay of the land, Yue ranged from the camp with her inexpert Transmutation, crashing through the forest like an Auroch in a terracotta shop. She had almost given up hope when, to her surprise, she had spotted a pig-like creature with a prehensile nose foraging for roots, utterly oblivious to her presence. From the back, it wasn't very impressive looking, akin to a stocky dog. It looked stupid, and according to Alesia's lessons, this meant one of two things - either the creatures weren't native, or it was unmolested by local predators. Looking at the honking porker, Yue was confident that it must have been stock kept by the colonists before they were wiped out by the Murlocs.
Currently, the porker was eating something by the lake's edge.
Very carefully, she evoked a Flaming Spear, an altered form of Scorching Ray re-shaped for penetration. With a Thunk! It struck the pig-like creature in the starfish, skewering the porcine beast with a quenching squeal.
Yue gave herself a crude chuckle before venturing from her hiding place. Knelling over her prey, she produced a bowie knife and began to dismember the beast, just as Paul had instructed. Now in a better mood, she hummed as she worked, whistling some tune that was popular back on Sydney's pop-charts before she left.
She was mid-hack through extracting a rather delicious looking length of back-strap when a commotion happened on the shore opposite, some half a kilometre across.
There was something on the lake. If Yue squinted against the sun, she could just make out what looked like a dam made from rotten driftwood and smashed up trees bundled together with vines. There was a Murloc on there, and he was manhandling a familiar, fleshy silhouette.
Yue stopped her extraction of dinner from the butchered pig. There, paralleling herself, was a fish-man taking an axe to something that looked vaguely human. She could just make out the humanoid shape thrashing about before it collapsed. The Murloc then hacked here and there, throwing bits of red-pink flesh into the waters.
"What the fuck," Yue mouthed to herself.
What the fuck did she just see? Her oesophagus clenched hard as she wiped her gore-soaked hands on her shorts and shirt. When she looked down again, she finally saw what the porker had been eating.
There was a human hand, cleaved at the wrist and missing a finger lying in the sedge.
That was what the porker was feeding on.
Yue crashed into the basecamp fifteen minutes later, her outfit torn and her legs were bleeding from trashing through briar thorns.
"No wonder there's so many of the little fuckers around." Paul was hanging a cig in one corner of his lip, grilling fish fillets over red-hot coals. "They got themselves a Spawning Pool set up."
"That explains how the local garrison got overwhelmed." Alesia clicked her tongue. "Little Murk bastards could get to maturity in three months if they just kept hidden in those lakes. Good work, Yue."
Alesia clicked her fingers, and the camp's fires died out.
"Fuck, my fish!" Paul groaned.
"Fuck your fish. Get ready to move out, Raid configuration. We're taking out that village."
"Yes, Ma'am!" The men saluted, then moved about camp, stowing their supplies.
"Yue, Billy, get me a sitrep on this lake, I want a comprehensive Scry of the area."
Yue directed on the map to Billy where she thought the lake would be, watching Billy's eyes turn white as the Scry took hold. When the Diviner finished, he turned again to the map and began to mark it with patrol routes, points of interest, and targets of opportunity. Yue watched Billy's work with fascination. Usually, Billy was a nervous, stuttering wreck, but the Diviner was an expert when it came to the cartographic markings.
Alesia approached with the rest of the team a few moments later, packed and ready to rumble.
Billy noted several entry strategies for Alesia's perusal, carefully combing over each item on the map. When it was all said and done, Alesia nodded with satisfaction.
"Good work, stay back and open up communication with our basecamp at the beach, let them know we found the motherlode. I want the area completely purged. Jonas, Paul, set up extraction points here— and here—"
Alesia tapped the map.
"Taj, Yue, you two are with me. Taj, Paul, we're running extended buffs, plan for sixty minutes of full-combat engagement. I am going to Djinn up."
"Alright. Buff up!"
"Wait up," Jonas coughed. "You want to take Yue on this?"
Alesia cocked her head.
"She's not ready."
Alesia turned to Yue.
Yue's thoughts flashed back to that scene she had witnessed at the lake. She could still feel the rage boiling over.
"I am ready."
"See, she's ready." Alesia patted Yue on the head.
Jonas said nothing.
"Okay, ladies, here we go!" Paul began to channel.
"Mass Flight! Enhanced Constitution! Freedom of Movement!"
"Aid! Bless! Resist Elements! Iron Skin!"
The two Mages broke into a sweat after buffing only Alesia and Yue. Taj then self-buffed, activating his Boots of Flying.
Alesia stepped back ceremoniously.
The men turned their backs as Yue helped Alesia remove her clothing, stowing them away in her ring.
A glyph appeared beneath the Scarlet Sorceress' feet, three circles bisecting to form a triplicate mandala, spinning faster and faster until it tapped into the Prime Plane of Fire. Instantly, the air around the Evoker ignited. Hovering mid-air, Alesia's flame-spirit Caracal melded into her body. Scarlet flames erupted from her porcelain skin, her hair transformed into strands of red-hot copper, sending out a swarm of fireflies. Her blue eyes became two brightly flaring stars, white with heat and the rage of primal fire.
Yue watched with eyes aglow with adoration and amazement. Here was the very embodiment of her most celebrated desire - the physical manifestation of "Firepower" in feminine form.
Alesia cracked her neck. Her voice was hollow and God-like.
"Yue, come! Today, we are Valkyries of Death, sowing discord and war in Odin's name!"