Tommy was waiting for the girls to return at the edge of the salt lake.
The smile on his face froze as details emerged with the girls' bedraggled state.
"How was it?" worriedly, Tommy asked. His Missus Mages had left as cool as cucumbers and returned beaten to within an inch of their lives. "Did you find Wanka?"
Gwen's right boot had been slashed in half; her leather riding pants ripped beyond repair. Debora's tanktop was torn and shredded; a smidgen of blood dashed across her chin and chest. The other two girls were worse for wear as well.
"There were TWO wankers." Yue was too tired to bother differentiating between annunciations. "The second wanker ambushed us."
Tommy made an 'o' with his mouth.
"All good." Gwen walked over to her horse and rubbed its snout. "We nailed them both, got their cores right here."
She raised a hand and flashed her nondescript ring.
"That's wonderful!" Tommy uttered, a broad smile appearing on his face. "I knew there was no way Wanka could stand up to you, Missus Boss."
"Well, let's get back. I could do with a lie-down," Gwen intoned with a distinct lack of vivacity. Even with Elvia's positive energy supplements, she felt drunk with fatigue.
The journey back to the camp was sullen and silent.
"I am sorry, everyone," Debora disrupted the silence when they saw the camp in the distance, her voice uncharacteristically demure. "I wasn't a good defender. I endangered all of us."
"Don't be like that, Debs. You did your best. We couldn't have done it without you," Gwen said. "You took a hit for Yue. Not to mention you kept us safe from the Wanka One just fine."
"I overestimated myself." Debora exhaled. "Now I know why every team needed an Abjurer."
"Yeah, we need to find a proper Abjurer for the 5v5." The rawness of Yue's criticism turning Debora's face a shade darker.
"Yunnie." Gwen raised her pitch an octave. That was rather rude even for Yue.
"What do you think, Elvia?" Yue tried to shift Gwen's ire elsewhere, but their companion remained silent.
The girl rode in silence until they reached the camp, where Old Goolagong was waiting for them.
"Welcome back, I'wai, heroes of the tribe. I sense you are successful."
"We almost died." Debora dismounted. She turned to face Old Goolagong with an unfriendly expression. "Did you know there were two of them? What were you planning? Did you hope we'd die there?"
"Debora!" Gwen warned her friend.
"You shouldn't trust them!" Debora seemed far more hostile than her usual self. Before they could answer, Debora fled towards their tent in a huff.
"Is Debs hale?" Gwen asked Elvia.
The little girl nodded.
"I healed her earlier. Debs had a minor fracture in her shoulder and severe bruising. She's fine, now."
They watched Debora zip up her tent with sullen violence.
Gwen didn't know what to think. How uncharacteristic. Debora wasn't acting like the happy-go-lucky girl-next-door she knew. It was a facet of her friend she had never seen before.
"I told you she's a racist? Remember? I told you as early as junior high," Yue groused vindictively, thinking of yesteryears. "Remember her favourite Asian jokes? The one about us eating dogs?"
Gwen and Elvia looked at Yue. That would have been a far more convincing argument if she didn't dismember Wanka.
Gwen opted to forgo riposting Yue's accusation. Instead, she calmed her friend by placing a hand on her shoulder. Gwen felt older than the girls, her temper less prone to wild assumptions and snap judgements, and that it was her duty to keep the peace.
Thinking of Debora, Gwen felt that the athletic late-teen wasn't so much a racist as one who was under a lot of undue stress. As an armchair psychologist, she would suggest that Debora suffered an inferiority complex. In failing to deliver the same performance as Yue, she looked to blame Goolagong.
But Gwen didn't feel right indulging Debora just because she was feeling down. The girl needed to grow both as a person and as a Mage, what good was a powerhouse who couldn't control their temper? They'd just be a danger to themselves and others.
"Leave her be, Yue." Gwen patted Yue's legs, telling her to chill. "We're not all built the same way, walk a mile in Debora's shoes sometimes and I am sure you'll come to understand her frustrations."
"Hmmph!" Yue grunted.
Old Goolagong said nothing.
"We begin ritual at nightfall, get a nice big bonfire going! We make corroboree! But first, let's get you settled into some bush tucker! Nothing like it in the cities."
"Alright!" Yue rubbed both hands together. "I got some bush tucker for you folks as well."
"Gwen." Elvia pulled at Gwen's sleeves. "Should I go check up on Debora?"
Gwen shook her head. Feeding into Debbie's wants only empowered their misery. In Gwen's experience, it was better to let girls get over it on their own, then praise them for their wisdom in achieving a change of heart.
"Let's go." Gwen hooked her hand into Elvia's elbow. "I've heard interesting things about bush tucker. Let's see what they have."
Already there was a stacked and smoking bonfire when the migloo magicians arrived at the corroboree. The girls watched with fascination as fellow tribesmen painted the dancers with meticulous care.
Gwen was hoping to see some authentic bush-magic but was disappointed when a lanky indigenous man produced flint and tinder and sparked the woodpile. He gave her the evil eye before leaving to join the others, evidently untrusting of Migloo magicians.
"I wasn't sure what I expected." Gwen looked around awkwardly when Old Goolagong asked her what she had expected.
"Why make magic when rocks will do?"
Gwen shrugged. Why indeed.
The older women in the camp made dinner while the younger women served. As guests, Gwen and the group didn't need to participate in the making of supper itself.
Yue however, dug a cooking pit for herself.
"The one thing Debby is good for, and she's not here," Yue commented sardonically. "Typical."
"..." Gwen and Elvia said nothing. Sometimes, only silence was golden.
Yue quickly arranged the wood into a hollowed piled.
"Conjure Flames." Yue moved her hand this way and that, carefully controlling an arcane flame to char and dry out the wood.
"Can't you cook directly with magical fire?" Gwen asked.
"Tried, taste like crap. There's just something about elemental fire that ain't right."
The girls watched as Yue stirred the wood until the charcoal smouldered.
"Pan please, and butter - all the butter, garlic too."
Gwen materialised them and handed it over. They watch the butter sizzle in the pan. A crowd of the locals had also decided to venture over to see what she was doing.
Gwen materialised the bundle of 'crab' legs. The indigenous folks marvelled at the size of the 'seafood'. It would be a rare treat for them, their home being so far from the ocean.
Yue roasted the legs first to burn off the hairy bristles, watching the shell turn a vivid red. With its mystical energies gone, the carapace easily cracked, the juicy flesh expanding as it cooked. She then sliced off generous chunks of aromatic white meat and sizzled it in the butter, sending out a delicious scent.
With the first pan of 'Wanka de garlic' served, dinner began in earnest. The irresistible scent of 'crab' flesh drew the locals from far and wide, lining up around the girls for a slice of the rare treat. In exchange, they brought bush tucker, bushels of bush tomato, cucumber, and sweet berries that had an acidic zest. Others brought sweet potatoes and other unnamable root vegetables, which made a lovely addition to the meal.
Old Goolagong poked at her generous portion of flesh with suspicion.
"What is this? I never imagined sea creatures be so large!" She muttered to herself. She placed a chunk into her mouth and savoured the taste.
"Wonderful." She allowed the sweet flavour to roll over her tongue. "What do you call this?"
"Wanka." Yue waved a section of the empty carapace in the air. She'd found that it was easier to directly cook the flesh in its shell by smothering it in butter, achieving an extraordinary crispy layer that crunched indulgently with buttery oil.
Old Goolagong dropped her plate.
"Shit!" She stammered alarmingly, her eyes bulging. "You're eating a greater spirit of the earth?"
"We." Yue smiled innocently at Old Goolagong. "We are eating a magical creature. Not earth, by the way, Wanka was an air element, can't you feel it in the flesh? It's fluffy and light."
Old Goolagong looked conflicted. She had never wasted food; it was a matter of respect. Timidly, the Spirit Walker tried her best to eat her portion, her tongue greasy with guilt and trepidation.
Gwen wasn't fussy herself. If there was one thing she needed after a Caliban session, it was copious amounts of food. There was her etherial hunger of the soul, which hungered for a sustenance of the spirit; then there was the physical hunger, which sought nourishment from nature.
With dinner done, it was now time for the metaphorical main course.
Old Goolagong gathered the girls next to the bonfire. Already, the beginnings of a corroboree were in the process. Patiently, she explained that the dance was a language, a law, a story, and a place; it was all of these things and together, it was the Dreaming.
"We will sing the song of Almudj, Singing the Snake, and it will come to visit you in the Dreaming."
"Right." Gwen nodded.
"Well, off with it."Goolagong gestured to Gwen's chest.
"With what?" Gwen inquired innocently.
Goolagong pointed to her impressive nakedness, gleaming with a sheen of dark sweat between the risen moon and the flickering firelight.
"Glyph, markings, magic words, to send Almudj to you, migloo girl!"
"Aww, hell yeah!" Yue slapped Gwen on the buttocks. "Get DOWN girl!"
"Oh." Elvia blushed flamingo pink from her dimples to her collarbones.
"Seriously?" Gwen blanched and burned.
Gwen looked at her friends expectantly. Thank God Debora wasn't here.
"I need to keep my... private garments on," Gwen said flatly, that was not up for negotiation, not with her friends and the tribe here.
"Your choice, don't blame me if Almudj dismisses you for a rock." Old Goolagong shrugged. "You migloos, all that talk and bluster."
Gwen began to remove her top, three pairs of eyes stared intently.
"Do you guys have to gawk so much?" Gwen inquired, even her navel was blushing.
"It's for your good." Yue bit into another length of crab leg, chewing loudly. "Keep going."
"Oh. My. God." Elvia was covering her face adorably, peaking out between her fingers. "Gwen! You're as white as snow!"
"She's the whitest migloo I'd ever seen," Goolagong noted, her brows wiggling like two caterpillars fighting for dominance of her face.
Gwen could see that her ghostly paleness had brought curious eyes from all over. Thankfully, they weren't interested in her nakedness; they were taken by instead by her ethereal visage.
"A Spirit!" someone cried out in alarm in the distance. "There is a migloo ghost!"
Gwen didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
With one pull, she removed her singlet like clotted gauze. She'd preferably get it over and done with than suffer the indignity of Yue's running commentary that followed each item of clothing. If Yue had dollar notes, she would have probably offered it.
"Jesus, Gwen!" Yue suddenly cried out, the 'crab' leg stopping at her lips. "Girl! You need to eat!"
Gwen was now down to her undergarments. The girls could see her very modest bust, but it was Gwen's ribs that shocked them, for they were obtrusively visible under her pale skin, as were her hip bones.
"Fuck me, you're a skeleton," Yue blurted. "I've seen you eat, hows that possible?"
"It's the Void Magic," Elvia said quietly.
"I know how powerful your Void Magic is, but Gwen - you gotta take care of yourself!" Yue uttered in dismay.
Gwen nodded. Before she awakened, her body was skinny but athletic. Now she looked as though she had gone through a string of obsessive crash diets. Her waist was so thin that it made Elvia's torso seemed full-bodied.
"Is that an effect of the Void spells as well?" Yue poked Gwen's stomach, where her skin was like a sheet of ivory, shimmering in the firelight with a pale nimbus.
"I think so," Gwen replied. Being quarter-Chinese and one-eighth Indonesian, she should possess a natural tan. Now Gwen burned at the slightest touch and had to avoid direct sunlight. She felt like an Eastern European vampire. Gwen thought about Elizabeth. No wonder they thought she was one of the undead.
"You migloos ready? The moon is going to sleep soon!" Goolagong vocalised abruptly. She had prepared the paints, the salted red pigments, the white ash, the dark amber, the yellow ochre, the orange blossoms collected from wildflower stalks. Now all these girls wanted to do was talk! "Skinny is skinny, at least you haven't starved to death. It happens, you know, when the land is dry! Come, Migloo girl! I need to put some colour on you before my mob thinks there's a Spirit in their midst."
Gwen presented herself for Goolagong's inspection. Her legs were okay, having retained their feminine shape. The worst of it was when Yue whistled lasciviously, giving her flashbacks to Kwan's party.
"Well, looks like your body's nutrients head downstairs before it fortifies up top," her friend noted expertly. "Double the butter!"
"I think its a matter of nutrients, not fat," Elvia added.
Gwen took off her boots and felt the softness of the red earth under her feet, its particles of fine, dried clay shifting between her toes.
"Alright, let's begin." Goolagong dabbed her fingers into the pots of pigment and began to colourise Gwen in the sigils of the Dreaming. The dyes weren't slimy, as Gwen had anticipated, but powdery. Goolagong first dapped on the sap of a plant Gwen could not name, then began to draw intricate patterns over her thighs, her stomach, making her way across Gwen's body.
"That needs to go," Goolagong said drily.
Gwen was already numb with embarrassment. She obediently removed the last vestige of civilisation from her torso.
Goolagong continued. Gwen's arms were painted and dotted to represent her body's ley-lines, channelling the spirit toward her heart. Her torso became spotted with two lines of ochre with a red line bisecting her bosom, curving around the swelling of her breasts.
"You two, come here," Goolagong commanded, telling Yue and Elvia to put their hands into the white powder. "Slap! Like this!"
Goolagong slapped Gwen's thigh, leaving behind a ghostly white handprint.
"HA!" Yue slapped Gwen on the bottom, twice, leaving behind two ghostly hands.
Gwen gritted her teeth and held back kicking sand in her friend's face.
Elvia was kinder than the mischievous Yue, she gingerly placed a few handprints on Gwen's stomach, her thighs, and her back, uncontrollably blushing as she performed her duty.
"Finishing touch! Almost done!" Goolagong said finally and went to work on Gwen's face.
The old Spirit Singer's fingers blurred, dabbing Gwen's brow, her cheeks and her neck with markings that spoke of her pure spirit, of her desire to seek counsel with Almudj, the great serpent mother of the land.
"Done!" Goolagong exclaimed proudly, examining her work. The migloo girl looked the part at least - if one ignored her glistening white skin. "Now go dance, go join the corroboree."
"I am sorry, what?" Gwen had thought she had heard something entirely impossible, like being asked to dance naked while covered in indigenous markings.
"Fool girl! You are Dreaming! Not dreaming!" Goolagong laughed. She pulled herself up and took Gwen's hand in the process. "Come!"
Yue's eyes were gleaming. O how she wished that she had brought a Lumen-recorder. Sucks to be that Debora, Yue thought, she doesn't know what she's missing.
Elvia tightly clutched Yue's arm, living vicariously through Gwen, too afraid to join.
Gwen meanwhile, couldn't possibly dream of what her friends were thinking. She moved into a mass of moving dark bodies dripping with the sweat of exertion. The old Spirit Speaker joined a part of the circle, pushing Gwen before her to the astonishment of others around them.
"What do I do?" Gwen was still covering her breasts with her hands.
"Follow the music; just move!" Old Goolagong laughed, moving her arms and following the music without apparent effort. "Let it come to you!"
Gwen slowly moved her hands from her chest and tried to follow the music. She stumbled here, wobbled there, flaying her arms urgently with graceless, incoherent fumbling.
Even Yue was embarrassed by Gwen's gangly display, driven to tears by her exhibitionism. Elvia's expression was likewise between sympathy and cringe, her face caught between the theatrical masques of tragedy and comedy.
Gwen felt the tempo rise along with the temperature.
There was a sense of dizziness that was beginning to replace her self-conscious nakedness.
Round and round the corroboree went, circles within circles.
There was a sudden clap.
"Kapi! Kapi! Kapi!" uttered old Goolagong, slapping her thighs.
To her surprise, Gwen followed suit with the rest of the dancers, not missing a beat.
"Kapi! Kapi! Kapi!"
The didgeridoo reverberated, the chanting sticks striking a staccato beat. The world around Gwen became less defined, the edges of figures above and below blurred.
"Kapi! Kapi! Kapi!"
"Kapi! Kapi! Kapi!"
There was a sudden sound of thunder.
Gwen was now covered with a sheen of white sweat, sweltering in the yellow firelight, her perspiration soaked into the markings upon her skin, they seemed to glimmer, burning with colour, becoming more vivid, pronounced, more striking with every move.
A sudden fermata.
A lull in the movement.
"It comes! Almudj comes to Dream!" cried out old Goolagong. Gwen crumpled, exhausted from the dance, breathing heavily, the swell of her small, white breasts panting for air.
Yue and Elvia listened with fascination as a sudden thunder rolled across the sky. There was a green glow in the distance, then a cascade of colour washed over the cloudless heavens.
"Where did that come from?" Yue looked at Elvia, who had no answers for her.
"Look there!" Elvia pointed toward the sky, her own eyes gleaming with anticipation.
They lifted their chins and saw a scintillating, brilliant Aurora Australis unfolding across a backdrop of the Milky Way. The gathered crowd observed the scene before them, agog with awe and wonder.
Cradled in Goolagong's arms, Gwen began to Dream.