Gwen massaged her thawing buttocks.
Surya had demonstrated a curious flaw of the scale's resistance, which was that its Enchantment worked best against spontaneous bursts of energy but fared poorly against gradual changes in temperature.
Horrified, Gwen quickly removed herself from the chair, making a rip-roaring noise. The embarrassment was mortifying, but she could hardly scold her Opa now, not after he had given her such an incredible gift.
Once her grandfather had his fun, Surya additionally recommended that she forgo the iconic look of the floating Ioun stone. Instead, she would "implant" the scale by adhering it to her skin. Subtlety, Surya explained, would necessary if she wished to avoid unwanted attention.
Lifting her hair, her Opa then placed the "Ioun Scale" against the base of her neck, below her hairline. With a word, Surya adhered the luke-warm Ioun Scale to her skin, where it would stay until she willed it to be released.
As a passive effect, Surya explained, the scale would continuously draw from the ambient mana that diffused from her body. It was why Mages had limited "slots" for passive items. Too many attunements meant that a caster crippled their Mana Pools.
After her Opa, Gwen returned to her friends. In her absence, her classmates made themselves comfortable on the long veranda, bathed in the auburn sunset setting aflame the infinity pool.
"It's beautiful here," Elvia marvelled as Gwen approached. "I've never seen anything like it."
"I've never seen anything like it period." Yue pouted. Unlike the other two, she was a regular girl with a middle-class Dad. They lived in a house that overlooked a narrow street. Gwen recalled that Yue's bedroom looked straight into her neighbour's bedroom.
She pulled up a chair and joined them.
"What's the plan?" Yue asked.
"Well." Gwen enjoyed the breeze. "We'll get the two of you outfitted tomorrow. Then we can rent a few horses. I know a guy, Tommy, who's a top bloke. There's a lot to do out here. We can hunt some Roos, get a barbecue going, or see local landmarks. We can even camp out for a night and stargaze."
"Sounds amazing," Elvia cooed.
"I am in," Yue agreed.
Satisfied, the girls preceded to shower and prepare for bed. Gwen returned to her bedroom, thinking of the sunset and the day ahead, dreaming of tomorrow.
“Kalinda!” someone shouted beside her ear.
Gwen bolted upright, propping herself on her elbows.
Only wasn’t in her bed.
She was instead comfortably nestled amongst on a straw mat laid over powdery clay. In the distance, a sinking sun shimmered, casting an orange haze over the ochre horizon.
No way, Gwen thought to herself. This isn't another transmigration, is it?
Beside her, old Tjupurrula squeezed her arm and puckered his lips, pointing toward something towering and maroon. Compared to herself, the withered ma' mangk was skin wearing bones, held together by desiccated sinews. The Spirit Walker's skin was scarred as per tradition, concurrently dappled with the earthy tones of the Pintupi.
Above her, an enormous landmark, too famous not to be recognised, loomed.
Is that— Uluru? Gwen marvelled. She had never seen the rock in real life before. It had always been on her bucket list, but work intervened.
Following Tjupurrula's finger, her eyes focused on the cloudless sky over the epic natural monument.
"Kapi!" the Spirit Walker clapped emphatically.
There was a crash of thunder; then it began to pour.
Rain fell from heaven in pails and buckets, a solid wall of water cascading from a sky without clouds.
Where did the water come from? Gwen marvelled.
Tjupurrula leaned in closer. His skin as dark as obsidian, slick as an eel's.
Gwen looked down and saw a pair of caramel bosoms jutting outwards. Remarkably, she did not feel shame. Why would she? Was that not how men and women came into the earth, naked and quivering, likewise leaving, also naked and quivering?
“The Rainbow - the rainbow comes from the earth and returns here.” Gwen heard herself speak, but her voice was strange. It was a woman’s voice, but not her own. "Grandfather, I see now."
“Aye. Almudj is a proper cheeky.” Old Tjupurrula flashed a mouth full of yellow teeth. “It lives here, with a long beard and sharp teeth, in Uluru. It does not need men or women. It dreams, requiring no ceremonies.”
“Will the Snake awaken feeling hungry? Will it eat us?” Gwen heard herself inquire innocently. Her question made Tjupurrula laugh.
“O ya, Snake is very dangerous when it is cranky. The land grows dry, and the Pintupi drink the earth. When it is hungry, we have kurtangulu, nothing!”
Gwen felt the cold water of the cloudless rain saturating her skin, washing away the dust and the grime. As the water streamed from her hair, she could almost sense the seeds buried deep underground violently erupting, breaching the surface, gasping for air.
She opened her mouth, filling it with water.
She swallowed, quenching her thirst.
Tjupurrula regarded her with a broad grin.
“Uluru! This why the Pintupi can be at peace. Not like those Usurpers. The Snake is proper cheeky, yes. It will attack invaders. It will return their body to their ancestors. All of them. Everywhere!”
Suddenly, there was a tremor. The ground began to shift and move. From atop Uluru, she could see an immense shape, slithering and meandering, sliding from within the stone.
“In the early days, when the Yirriti first carried the Song, they carried it through the country, safe from the stalkers and the hunters. They carried it in drought times, through a dry country, travelling at night. I saw this once, Kalinda. I was a young komp, and my eyes were bright.”
“The Pintupi come from the old country, walking to the rock. Following the track. Following the track left by the Snake. Silently, looking, looking and coming to this place. To the mother place. People come. There were many of us then.”
Tjupurrula’s eyes glazed over with a look of nostalgia.
“Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. They come to sing to the Snake. From Purtardi, Koonadan, from Karli Karru, from Tamarama, from Wimparraku. They come. From the south. From the north. From the east. From the west. They shared their meat, their eechak. I shared my kongk. There was no blood, no hate. When we walk the Long Walk, there is no argument. No eye.”
“In Uluru, with our special song. The Song of the Pintupi, we sing to the Snake. We could make the Snake remember a time when the world was young. It was a friend then. Before the Usurpers came; all people sang the song.”
A sound of thunder rumbled across the sky.
“Kapi! Kapi! Kapi!” Tjupurrula began. “Come! Ngak uu peeyan!”
Old Tjupurrula's hands gestured in the air. All around them, Gwen saw thousands, tens of thousands of the folk gathered, singing, dancing, revelling in the corroboree.
Laughing, Gwen lifted herself from the earth. The torrential rain cleansed the mud from her body. She joined the dance, hundreds of bodies in motion, moving round and round, their bare feet pitter-pattering across the flowing earth.
CRACK! Came the sound of earth-shattering fulminations. From the apex of Uluru, the Snake began to move, moving toward them, coming closer.
The ground shook again. Something else began to pour from atop the rock. Water gushed from the stone, water the likeness of blood, shaking the earth, filling the earth with life. Gwen wept, for here was where every river in the world begun.
Her world turned scarlet. Everywhere the red liquid touched, the land itself was quickly changing— fields of wild grass and wildflowers sprouted violently, exploding from the earth in vibrant eruptions. A verdant rainbow manifested where there had only been sand and dusty death.
“Kapi! Kapi! Kapi!”
The song continued unceasingly, the masses of bodies forming an unending spiral around Uluru.
“Kapi! Kapi! Kapi!”
Gwen turned her gaze upward to see the scintillating eyes of the serpent regarding her curiously.
"Almudj sees you, Kalinda!" Old Tjupurrula slapped his thighs. "Speak to it, girl! Ask for rain!"
The serpent's voice flooded her mind, drowning Gwen in a flood of rushing white water.
Gwen forced her eyes to open.
Gingerly, one hand moving toward the back of her head, caressing the pulsing serpent's scale imprinted on her neck.
Taking deep breaths, Gwen forced herself to calm.
Her dream did not feel like an astral projection or an out of body experience. Instead, it was a vicarious immersion. She felt as though she had been there, as though she was the woman who was speaking to that ancient Spirit Walker, Tjupurrula.
Certainly, her Opa never mentioned anything about the scale bringing edicts from land gods, so what was her vision supposed to be?
Outside, it was already morning.
There was a din of women bickering on the veranda.
As the voices were familiar, Gwen attempted to make out the source of the fuss. The loud and obtrusive screamer was Yue without a doubt. The other was churlish and overbearing. Dobora— Gwen realised. Debora was back.
Slapping on a pair of shirt and shorts, she exited her room.
Outside, Elvia, who was in all-white, was trying to play the peacemaker.
Yue was leaning against the veranda’s rails with a sulky look, arms crossed, heaving angrily.
Debora was on the opposite side, hand on hips, aggressively incensed.
There was static in the air.
All three pair of eyes converged.
Gwen sensed the worse was yet to come. For some reason, she felt like a cheating husband who had double-booked his mistress and his family.
"Hey there, Gwennie, I am back." Debora's voice maintained a suggestive, husky candour. "Did you miss me?"
Yue and Elvia's gazes shot towards Gwen accusingly.
"I didn't know you would be back so soon," Gwen returned, realising she sounded like a guilty housewife. "How was Christmas?"
"Got my blessings from the Archbishop, then polished off some honeyed ham at home." Debora pouted. "Came straight back to see how you were doing."
"Fu—" Yue began.
"YOU KNOW WHAT?" Gwen interrupted before the situation could escalate further. "Let's all go riding! Horses! Big Red Roo! OPEN SKIES!"
Fuck a duck. Gwen groaned.
She had forgotten entirely that only she and Debora had horses on the estate.
Due to her inconsiderate party planning, the foursome was now stuck in Tess's car, on route to McGuigan's Estate. A bemused Rhodes had been informed of their arrival, and he had sent out Tommy to ensure the girls could all be saddled and sorted.
Already, the atmosphere in the Merc was suffocating. Gwen sat in the passenger seat, while Elvia sat in the middle, caught between a Yue and a Debora.
After ten minutes of not talking to one another, Gwen couldn't take the silence anymore.
"Look, nothing happened between Debs and I. We were just fooling around."
Debora looked hurt. Yue was about to bust a gasket.
"Alright, that was a poor choice of words. Debora and I were partners..."
Debora looked pleased. Yue looked hurt.
"— in a PARTY. God damn it. We worked in a strictly professional capacity, okay?"
"But what about..." Debora raised a hand.
"Debby, help me out here!" Gwen snapped.
"Alright, alright." Debora put up both hands. She turned to look at Yue, who was eyeing her suspiciously. "Gwen and I shared some intimate memories, not that any of you would know."
"Debora Jones!" Gwen's patience had run its course. She had entirely forgotten how annoyingly possessive and stubborn Debora could be.
"Hmmph!" Even the angelic Elvia felt insulted. Debora's body language did not suggest that her interested in Gwen was platonic.
"You wish, skank." Yue was taking no prisoners.
"Oi, you lot! Do you want me to run the car into a tree?" Tess, who had suffered for an hour, demanded darkly. "I'll be fine with my Iron Skin. But it'll put you sulky lot out of your misery post quick."
"Thank you, Tess. That's wonderfully morbid." Gwen sighed. "Alright, everyone. Until we get to the horse farm, there is to be no more bullshit. Or else, I swear to God, I'll turn this car around!"
"Lady boss!" Tommy leapt off his horse with a flourish, bowing as he did so, kicking up a mighty storm of impressive dust. His eyes scanned over the girls. "Oh my! Are Missus Mages always so beautiful?! I must have died and gone to heaven!"
No one answered him, Tommy was amazed by the silence. What had happened? His flattery rarely if ever fell on deaf ears.
"Hi Tommy, we need to borrow your and four horses, can you pick out some docile mares for my friends, Elvia and Yue?" Gwen's voice demure and defeated, and it made Tommy terrified. "We'll be stargazing as well, so if you could pack the horses for camping, it would be lovely."
"Sure thing, but you okay, Lady boss? You sound sick, unhappy. Anything Tommy can do to help?" Tommy offered thoughtfully; these lady bosses looked very expensive.
"I am alright Tommy. Please see to it now."
Gwen walked off by herself towards the paddock where the horses roamed, leaving Tommy to busy himself with the supplies, wondering if the weather had suddenly changed for the worse.
"Mmmnngh!" Elvia had been mum this whole while, but she couldn't take Gwen been unhappy for another minute! "Yue! Debby! Go apologise, now!"
The two girls looked at the healer and her misty eyes.
"Yes, Ma'am," Yue replied with a deflating voice.
"Sorry, Elvia," Debora replied earnestly. "Yue, Gwen and I are just friends. Honestly."
"I am sorry as well. I was being a bitch."
The girls went and located their friend.
"We're sorry!" The troublemakers apologised. Making a supplicating bow that was the sign of a junior Mage to a superior. "Please don't stay upset."
Gwen turned; her usually sparkling-bright emerald eyes were red and puffy.
"I am alright." Gwen rubbed her eyes. "Promise me you two won't fight for stupid reasons again."
"I promise." Debora crossed her heart.
"Me too," Yue added stiffly.
"Okay. Now is a good as a time as any then. Yue— Debora is going to be on our 5v5 team," Gwen added. "I want us all to work together and win. You know how much I need this. And how much we all need to win to advance our future careers."
"You'll get no arguments from me," Yue raised both hands. She then extended a hand towards Debora. The two shook, albeit grudgingly.
"Okay!" Gwen smirked, her face once again projecting happiness. "You girls go and pick your horses. I need to wash up my face. It's embarrassing to see myself like this."
Her friends breathed a sigh of relief as Gwen watched them go, a secret smile touching the corner of her lips.
"Hehe, you young ducks are still too tender for an old bird like me."
Gwen winced, conjuring fresh water to wash out her eyes. Employing half an onion had been excessive. In hindsight, a single slice would have done the job just as well.