Wanka moved like mercury slipping through air.
Debora's hands met in the middle, causing her sand dome to expand. Gwen did her best to track the spider, but before she could utter a second warning, it landed on top of the semi-dome barrier— its salt-encrusted body bypassing Yue's Flaming Wall with only a fistful of singed hair.
With the sound of screeching metal, its forelegs descended once again. This time, Debora's Transmutation was far too slow to adapt to its supernatural velocity, Debbie was apt, but she was no Abjurer.
In the blink of an eye, Gwen spontaneously activated her Abjuration shield. With repeated use, even her stolen talent was reaching the tier of a sufficiently awakened Sigil; what she now lacked was the tenacity, strength and formal education.
Wary of what might happen to her friends if she used void, Gwen evoked her lightning, manifesting her non-newtonian barrier, feeling her mana reserves deplete.
There came the sound of a violent collision, followed by blinding flash of mana congealing were the blade-like legs struck.
Crack! Fractures split the snowdome shielding from edge to edge. For now, Gwen's Shield held, but for how long they could not know.
"Fuck!" Yue swore, echoing Gwen's thoughts.
"Shield of Faith!" Elvia wasn't an Abjurer. Her shielding spells were underpowered, but right now, every layer helped.
Debora's sand finally caught up, but Wanka effortlessly extracted its limbs from the grip of her silica. The Transmuter howled with frustration. Her control was still insufficient; she required higher tier spells to snare the beast.
"It's too quick!" Debora wailed. "Shit!"
Gwen felt her Warding Bolt and Thunderstorm both fired, but the air elemental Spider was highly resistant to lightning.
Gwen's mind spun. Debora's sand was too ponderous; Gwen's lightning was ineffective, and Yue's fire was too slow to get a good hit on the sixteen-legged spider.
"If we can hold it still..." Yue concentrated on maintaining her Wall of Fire.
"We need to slow it down somehow," Elvia yelled.
"I am going to Flashbang it!" Gwen shouted. "Directly on top of us. Deb! I need hardcover for the party!"
"Nine O'clock!" Debora preempted the attack by gathering up the sand around them to form a dome. "Here it comes!"
Gwen watched the sand creep over her mana shield, enclosing the girls in a semi-sphere of darkness. At the last moment, she reached out and conjured through her Evocation Sigil an over-channelled Flashbang spell.
BUNG! Erupted a muffled blast.
There was the sound of something scribbling on the surface of the sand shield; then Gwen's Shield shook. Debora grunted as she held her barrier, withstanding the shockwave rippling over its surface, flaking off pieces of sand and revealing the glassy mana dome below.
Something trashed wildly somewhere distant from their position. Debora collapsed the sand shield with a wave of her hand, revealing before the girls a white blur of blades and limbs the size of a combine-harvester.
True to Goolagong's word, Wanka was a spider with an extra set of limbs. Its armoured body erupted in white bristling hair flinging salt this way and that as it spun in circles, lashing out with its forelimbs. From a safe distance, they could see that it had four retractable limbs which lashed out with scythe-like forelegs. Every time it attacked, the legs punched or pawed the air, like that of a mantis-shrimp.
Two bolts of lightning, one from the conjured cloud and the other from Gwen's warding bolt lashed out overhead and struck the beast squarely, showering the spider with sparks.
The creature spun and oriented itself towards the girls.
"Flashbang!" Gwen front-loaded a sonic explosion directly before the creature, motioning for the others to shield the eyes. Once again, Wanka thrashed and spun.
Gwen recalled that wolf spiders felt for pray with sensitive hairs on their forelegs, likewise relying on their incredible vision. If so, her Flashbang must be a hell of a sensory overload.
"That spell is such a cheat," Yue stated wryly. She moved her hands and cut loose the mana she had spent the last few turns gathering.
A total of six rays shot out from her hands, slicing into the blurring white mass. There was a scream of pain, then two limbs flew from the panicked spider, one skittering and rolling away while the other was flung violently through the air.
"Flashbang!" Gwen shot off another spell as the girls held their ears.
"That poor spider." Elvia looked away. "It's in so much pain."
"Fireball!" Yue shot off her best spell, watching the small dot of fire zoom towards the spider. Upon impact, it's collated energy lashed out, rapidly expanding until it reached its maximum blast range. The force of the blast was enough to rip off a whole section of the spider's chitinous carapace.
"Wait up." Gwen halted Yue before she could fire off another blast. "Caliban needs to feed."
They watched as a lump of soil moved underfoot towards the spider, now skittering weakly, too damaged to escape. There was a wet sound as Caliban emerged under its abdomen. With a crunch, her creature pierced through Wanka's carapace, invading its body.
The spider's legs shot out with an expression of indescribable pain as a parasitic netherworld worm dug through its guts in search of Creature Core. There came a second thunk! Then Caliban broke free from Wanka's face, its serpentine form steaming with ichor and purple bile.
"Shaa! Shaa!" it announced satisfyingly.
"Holy shit, Gwen." Yue hadn't seen Caliban in action before.
Elvia's face turned pale; she held her mouth lest she lost the battle to contain her stomach contents.
Debora was about to say something witty at the other two girls, but a sudden tremor beneath them sent her off balance.
The vast white expanse of the salt-flat suddenly cracked, tectonic plates of salt shifting and moving as something huge began to break through the crust.
"Fuck!" Yue dropped to her knees, losing balance. "What the hell is that?"
"Jump!" Gwen grabbed Elvia by the waist. "Now!"
Debora instantly reacted, she hadn't worked with Gwen for a month without building at least some rapport. She tackled Yue at the waist and activated her Jump spell.
The two girls, each with a companion, leapt away from their standing positions. Gwen activated Feather Fall on her ring and used her an incanted Feather Fall on Elvia. Conversely, Debora used her Jump for horizontal movement; dashed herself and Yue some ten meters away from where they had stood only a moment before.
A set of forelegs three metres in length extended from the broken salt. Gwen winced and looked down. She was bleeding profused because one of the claws had nicked her calve. When the pain finally travelled up her nerves, Gwen almost fainted. Her left leg as a mess— where Wanka had struck, it had cut her to the bone, exposing the white tenders still connecting her muscles.
"Elvia!" Gwen called out. She wasn't sure how she would react. Their present engagement was the first time she had been wounded in a battle with a monster. She couldn't even imagine what would happen if they didn't have a healer.
Below her, the sudden vertical movement had disorientated Elvia, but Gwen's sudden cry of alarm jolted her from her confusion. Placing both hands on her friend's thighs, the petite Cleric incanted her best spell.
"Cure Moderate Wounds!"
A gush of positive energy channelled through Gwen's body, instantly stitched her wound, mending the flesh and inflicting her with an itch that was impossible to scratch.
Gwen moaned. The pain and the itch were exquisite, caught between two extremes, she didn't know whether to scream or cry.
By now, she knew her Warding Bolt and Call Storm had fizzled.
Some distance away, Debora was coughing up blood. She had used her own body to shield Yue, tanking the kinetic energy of Wanka Two's rebar-like forelimb. Only now did she realise a claw had bitten her Bronze Flesh, possibly cracking her collarbone.
Conversely, Yue had been sent skidding half a dozen metres, disorientated but safe.
"Fuck, the small wanker wasn't Wanka!" Yue shouted at the girls, stating the obvious. "This big tosser is Wanka! Wanka TWO!"
Gwen meanwhile, still had ten-odd seconds of airtime. Below her, the spider was trying to pull itself from the encrusted earth. From the fissures, she could see that it had made a tunnel system beneath the salt lake, constructed its lair somewhere deep and terrible.
Within the scope of her Detect Magic, the creature's mana signature burned. It was tier six; or at least at the apex of five. The smaller spider must have have been its mate!
Gwen felt a kink of fear wrecking her spine. If they didn't kill it here, they could all die!
"Debora!" Gwen called out. "Immobilise it! Don't let it get out!"
As the spider's head emerged, Gwen dropped her Signature Spell in front of its sixteen scintillating eyes.
The creature shrieked, but her spell was visibly less effective. The bigger the monster, the better its resistances.
"Shape Earth!" Debora grunted between ragged breaths made more painful by her bruised body. Sand quickly filled the space where it had tried to scramble up from the earth, preventing the creature from breaking through the crust of salt.
Yue poured the rest of her mana into an alpha strike.
"Fucking Fire Storm!" she screeched forth her most potent Evocation, making a motion that mimed the pushing of some great force toward the earth.
Above the behemoth spider, a swirling cloud of fiery tempest formed and began to rain down streaks of hissing fire, stabbing into the trapped Wanka.
The spider's bristling hair was immediately aflame, sheets of encrusted salt sliding off its carapace from the impact, exposing its chitinous shell beneath.
"Ariel!" Gwen commanded, and the sliver mongoose fired a blast of barbed lightning into the Wanka's face. A second later, the spider's bulbous body grew vivid with crawling electricity, electrocuting its target.
"I can't hold it!" Debora cried out; she almost OoM, her glistening skin white with encrusted salt. Unlike Gwen, Debora had not undergone a nutrient-rich diet of crystals and Wild Land beasts to boost her reserves.
"I am almost out as well!" Yue's face was dripping with salt and fatigue. She had barely reached Tier 4, meaning her fire variant of tier 4 Ice Storm overtaxed both her mind and her still-developing body.
"Lightning Blast!" Gwen attempted a coup de grâce.
Wanka Two ignited. Dozens of lightning bolts channelled one after another into the thorax of the spider. The first few were guided by Ariel's bristles towards its eyes but danced over the carapace harmlessly. The next few fared better, penetrating deeper into the spider to wreaking havoc upon its nerves.
Smoke began to pour from Wanka Two's face. If spiders could scream, it would probably be shouting incoherently right now.
"Haa—ha—" Gwen panted, likewise dripping with perspiration.
WHAM! Wanka broke free.
The girls' screamed, Gwen included.
Ariel made a heroic dash for the creature, but it was too slow and too small. Wanka shot straight toward Gwen and Elvia, its bulbous body a mass of salt-encrusted hair, its legs blurring as it raked against the earth, breaking through the salt and finding purchase on the rocks beneath.
"Caliban!" Gwen sent out a mental command before calling for help. "Elvia! I need vitality! FILL ME UP!"
Next, Gwen wrapped her arms around Elvia, crouching to minimise her profile.
Gwen had never made a non-newtonian Void Shield before, though now that she did, she felt instantly hollowed out, With a supreme force of will, she kept herself awake. They had overestimated themselves. As a party, they were still too inexperienced. They had no Abjurer, and they had no Flight. Their talents made them too arrogant, had they were going to pay the price.
The truth was, a party of synergised Mages with Flight and Earthen Shielding would find no trouble with Wanka. They could tank it; they could kite it, they could grind Wanka to dust. Comparatively, Gwen's party had two glass canons, two summons who couldn't tank, an off-tank, and a healer who has yet to learn AOE healing. They had insane damage output, of course, but if the first strike should fail, what then?
Gwen felt dull thuds striking her Shield.
In her arms, Elvia moaned as her life energy drained away, stolen by the connection between Healer and Void Mage.
Outside, Yue watched helplessly as the truck-sized spider barrelled towards her friends. She was out of mana and felt a helplessness that she had never experienced when she was with Alesia.
She could see Debora being caught in a sudden panic as well. Debby had said that she could be their tank - but reality had proven her insufficient and ill-equipped. Transmuters could do many things, but they could not fill the irreplaceable role of the Abjurer.
Then suddenly and without warning, Gwen transformed into a ball darkness, drinking all light.
Wanka itself seemed to realise the horror it was imminently facing. It tried to halt its momentum, but it was too fast, too heavy and too committed to its own brazen, rage-filled charge.
The girls watched as the creature skidded, limbs akimbo then barrelled into Gwen's Void Shield. Its sword tipped arms scraped the surface, but made no sound.
It was eerie. There was the sound of Wanka's limbs crashing against the salt, but where it had struck the Shield— there was only a silken silence.
The impact was worse than Gwen had thought. She felt both her mana and her vitality drop like a stone down a deep, dry well. Had Elvia not been here, she would have likely fallen unconscious, her body acting out to save itself from the consumption.
Her master was right.
The Void Shield was too dangerous.
It was a mash-up of antithetical abilities and synergies.
Even if she won, it would be a pyrrhic victory of old, winning a battle by a hair's breadth. But what if her foe survived? Would a weakened, drained, and devastated Gwen be able to continue to protect her Evee?
But luck was on Gwen's side. Now bereft of its sword tipped forelegs, Wank Two had lost all fineness.
"Urrrnk! Hurrrrnk!" The spider's mandibles moved insanely, making that sound which Old Goolagong had said was an angry wombat humping a cockatoo, or was it a kookaburra?
"Caliban!" Gwen called out again, hoping to God her Lovecraftian companion had made it.
The spider tried to orientate its body but grew grossly unbalanced by the loss of its limbs. Compared to Wanka One, Wanka Two now appeared ponderous and slow.
Gwen watched the ground beneath it crack open to reveal Caliban, a dark dart against the white salt. With an audible "crunch!" Her Familiar punching into the abdomen of the second creature.
It was over, Gwen grasped their present danger. She and friend only needed to survive for the next fifteen seconds or so.
Elvia's self-sacrifice had restored at least half her vitality. As Caliban made its way through the creature's innards, Gwen felt another hit of vital energy fortifying her trembling body.
"Debora! Pillars!" Gwen called out as she sailed through the air towards her companions. "Evee, hang on! Jump!"
Gwen's miraculous survival filled her party with renewed energy. As commanded, Debora placed her hands upon the now shattered salt-lake and incanted, erecting dozens of pillars to obstruct their foe.
Wanka seemed to know that its life would soon be forfeit. Something was slowly but inevitably making its way up to its cephalothorax, obliterating its organs as it went. When it reached its Core, Wanka, Queen of the salt lake, would be no more.
The spider charged at the girls, pushing past the pillars. Its massive body was crashing and tearing through Debora's barriers like paper. Drawing on a second wind, the girl fought back with Magic Missiles and cantrips. Gwen especially forcing out a few more Flashbangs to try and slow it down.
Then, mid-strike, the spider halted. All of its limbs give out at once.
There was a wiggling of the carapace around its head. Gwen felt her Kirin amulet grow hot.
"Shaa! Shaa!" Caliban triumphantly emerged, its purple body glistening with spider ichor and gore. It was utterly engorged with Wanka's life force, its obese girth glimmering gluttonously.
"Good work Cali!" Gwen hailed the creature as it leapt from the carcass.
Ariel slinked before Gwen expectantly.
"You too, buddy!" She stroked Ariel's fur as it purred, turning over and over.
Caliban approached and began to convulse.
"Oh God, what's it doing now?" Elvia swallowed the vomit rising in her throat, her face a mask of fascinated horror.
With a sticky hurling motion, Caliban spewed out two mana cores twice the size of a fist.
"Oh!" Yue reached out to take a core. "Fingers crossed for SPIDER SPIRIT, YO!"
The girls held their breath.
There was no Spirit inside.
Yue tried the second Core.
The triumphant atmosphere instantly grew cold. Debora's luck of the Irish aside, the odds of finding a spirit was near-impossible.
"Still, a Core this size, at least two-three hundred HDMs?" Yue appraised their loot expertly. They talked a lot about money during their jungle adventure, especially adventure spoils. "They usually shatter, you know. Good work, Caliban!"
Caliban wiggled disgustingly.
Gwen touched the amulet beneath her blouse. As before, at the corner of her eye, she recalled something moving from the carcass towards her. The mirage appeared to have to dissipate halfway, leaving only a vague, benevolent feeling of warmth. She would have to question someone about the charm someday, Gwen realised. But, her father seemed to know nothing about it; and she doubted he would have given it so freely had the lazy Morye known of its boon. What would Opa think? She wondered. He had said nothing when she had worn it openly. Did her Kirin amulet appear to others to be a non-magical object? Merely a keepsake?
"Pop it in the bag," Yue said to Gwen. Gwen performed as Yue had asked, stowing the cores in her Storage Ring.
The girls watched Yue go over to the spider and began to hack off its limbs.
"What are you doing?" Elvia inquired, her blue eyes wide and innocent.
Yue extracted a length of crystalline flesh as thick as her arm from a split leg.
"Fuck yeah," she sang. "This wanker's a real beauty."
The girls could see she was salivating.
"..." Gwen nodded to herself. Wanka was a giant Hokkaido deep-sea crab, wasn't it? Waste not— want not.
Debora looked like she was about to hurl. She was strict meat and three vegetable kind of girl. Elvia, conversely, never in her life imagined that a 'land crab' like a spider could be edible.
"Crab party!" Yue announced cheerfully, presenting the legs to Gwen one by one. "You got more room in there?"
She had enough room.
She also liked to eat crab.