The journey at night proved as troublesome as the girls had anticipated, having to fight off Dingos, Wargs, and even a Giant Wombat on the prowl.
Though the girls were in no danger, Debora tearing a scamp limb from limb and Yue reducing fauna to chunks of smouldering meat proved too much for the horses. In the end, the girls resigned to set camp and wait out the night, only now bereft of tents and sleeping bags thanks to Gwen's bolt of emerald lightning.
Debora again came to the rescue, using her Minor Stone Shape to create clay shelters, going as far as to fabricate a bathroom and a showering area.
Tommy took up guard duty as the girls showered, cleaning off the grime and dust soiling their clothes. Gwen used her Conjuration to summon water for the girls while they showered under the makeshift shelter.
"Don't feel bad for what happened, Gwen," Elvia comforted Gwen from within the stall. "I am sure it was out of your control, something to do with the Spirit of the serpent or the strange ritual. Besides, Debora's safe. We can all put this behind us when we get back to the city."
Gwen handed her a towel, the tiny blonde girl wiped herself down carefully, though the act itself attracted the everpresent red dust.
Yue was next; she didn't seem too affected by Debora's near-death encounter. Instead, she seemed more annoyed with Debora's display of vitriol more than anything else.
"Gwen, I know you think you owe Debs or something, but that's bullshit, alright?" she harshly whispered as Gwen kept up the reservoir. "Seriously, I don't mind her on the team, but if she's going to disrupt our teamwork, she should fuck off. That migloo is not a good fit."
Gwen said nothing as while Yue hung a towel around her neck and walked out of the stall brazen as anything, making Tommy pine for the bush.
"What did Yue say to you?" winsomely, Debora inquired when it was her turn, lathering her honeyed-skin while Gwen stood one wall away.
"Nothing in particular," Gwen lied.
"Hey, I don't blame you for that accident. It's the fault of those savages."
"Please, Deb, that was me. I was the one who contacted the Spirit."
"Bullshit. When did any of our magic ever screw up like that? Our spells always worked as intended, no chaos, no stupid possessions, no random effects. I am sure of it, Gwen, don't blame yourself."
Gwen averted her eyes when Debora stepped from the cover of the stall, soapy as anything.
"Join me? You can summon the water from in here too."
Gwen shook her head ."Sorry Debs, not now."
Debora shrugged, She returned to the shower and washed herself off. When she finished, she likewise slung the towel around her neck, facing Gwen with a full-frontal silhouette, she called her name.
"Gwen, come here."
Gwen met Debora over the barrier.
With a swift motion, Debora leaned in and kissed her full on the lips.
"Debs!" Gwen snapped back. "No! I am still dirty!"
"I don't mind." Debora pressed in. "Dirty is good."
"Debora Jones. No." Gwen shifted the timbre of her voice. "NO."
Debora shifted sulkily, her face a mask of displeasure, her brows furrowed in frustration.
"Why not?" the girl asked, her voice full of hurt.
Gwen wondered if she should just tell it to Debora straight rather than waiting for her to acknowledge the truth. The girl was getting far too aggressive. She took a deep breath— but was interrupted by an interjection from Debora.
"You know what. I don't want to know." Debora waved a hand at Gwen, moving away still half-naked. "Good night."
Gwen breathed a sigh of relief.
She entered into the now muddy shower stall and tested its integrity. In the reservoir, she conjured a stream of water into the indent in the ceiling, watching it flow into the tin bucket. Of all the girls, Gwen was the one with the direst need of a pleasant drizzle.
She began by washing away the paint and grime, feeling the dissolution of the pigments under the strain of flowing water. They pooled at her feet with a rainbow hue, each dye distinct enough in density and particle to remain platonic even in an ankle-deep puddle. The cold water felt good, even at night, the Outback was hot and sweltering. Slowly, she collected her thoughts fell into the momentary zen of shower thoughts.
Her hand moved toward the back of her skull, where the absence of the scale still stung. Without it, she felt incomplete.
With a flicker of her finger, she materialised the item in question. In her hand, the scale shimmered alluringly with a scintillating reflection, scattering the moonlight.
"Kin," Almudj had told her.
"Almudj is kin, not enemy," Old Goolagong had said.
Gwen pulled back her hair and envisioned the scale once again attached to her neck, an extension of her own body. Warmly, Almudj's gift kissed her skin. Instantly she sensed a feeling of affection, a wordless joy. She felt connected to something bigger, older, something benevolent and motherly all at once.
"Kin." Gwen cupped the last of the water and offered it to the night, letting it run through her fingers, watching it displace over the red earth.
The Conjure Water spell dispelled while Gwen was distracted by her thoughts. The cessation of the flowing stream disturbing the lull of her midsummer dream.
Without words, Gwen stood in the stall, dripping with droplets that caught the moonlight, painting her silver.
She ran a hand between the modest swell of her white breasts, feeling the pronunciation of the ribs that jutted out underneath them. Her hip bones too were protrusive to the touch. Despite the undeniable toll of her Void Magic; she felt revitalised. Was her renewed vigour a gift from Almudj? Gwen had no doubt it was. The evocative feeling of kinship was undeniable.
Gwen towelled herself off and slipped into another pair of clean shorts and singlets. She walked barefooted towards the girls, finding a space between Debora and the others.
Debora had nothing to say to Yue. Yue likewise, was too stubborn to make good with Debora. Elvia sold herself as Switzerland but decidedly favoured Team Yue when a conflict ensued.
"Can we talk?" Gwen asked them.
The girls murmured their agreements. As a gesture of goodwill, Debora materialised stone benches for them by moulding the smooth sandstone beneath the soil.
Gwen produced bottles of refrigerated beverages, still half-frozen, from her Storage Ring. She passed them out amongst the girls.
"You all mean a lot to me." Gwen began, her eyes scanning over the girls one by one. "But senior school, we are going to go our separate ways. These next six months that we share are potentially going to become some of our best memories."
"We have the Inter-High competition before us. A competition that as you know, is supremely important to me. It is also important for you guys in that it would determine your university offers. Your career tracks. For us, if we can demonstrate our skill and talents, it would serve as a far stronger application than any result we can produce at the final Government accreditation exams."
"So— I ask you guys, as your friend and as your teammate, to please put your differences aside."
The delivery was more for Debora's benefit than Yue's or Elvia'. Yue had her apprenticeship with Alesia, and Elvia had Medical school.
The girls murmured their agreements.
"Pretty please?" Gwen put her hands together and made a begging motion like a praying monk. "For my sake, for all our sakes."
"I'll do it!" Elvia extended a hand toward Yue and Debora.
Yue took Elvia's hand.
"Sorry Debs, let's work well from now on."
Debora too extended her hand, and the three of them exchanged awkward handshakes.
"Likewise, I am sorry for my outbursts. I'll try my best from now on," Debora replied, her eyes glancing at Gwen.
"Thanks, everyone," Gwen intoned appreciatively.
"There's still three hours until sunrise, who's keeping watch?" Yue asked.
"I'll do it. You guys get some shut-eye. I am wide awake right now." Gwen offered herself.
Debora shaped some more shelter, within which the girls slept on their towels.
Tommy was already asleep, sprawled out against a tree in-between urine scented grass marked by the horses. The mental pressure of resisting a peek as four Lady Bosses strutted about in various states of undress was too much for his hot-blooded mind to bear.
Gwen turned to the silhouetted horizon and meditated. Her consciousness turned inwards, examining her astral body, observing her collection of Sigils.
Evocation glowed the brightest.
Conjuration a close second.
Her Abjuration Sigil was still dim, but there was a noticeable difference since she started to use Shield regularly.
The gate of her Void element shimmered darkly.
Her gate of Lightning blazed and crackled, only it was brighter somehow, more vivified.
Curious, she channelled her Lightning mana. Once its power struck her conduits, she was in no double that her Affinity had increased.
Instinctively, she knew her Void fiend was the culprit. The void creature had consumed the vital energy of two Wankas. Both beasts had been heavily enchanted, their cores overflowing with elemental Air— and AIR was one of two Prime Elements that made up Lightning.
Does this mean that she could level up her Affinity for Lightning by consuming Air Elementals? Gwen wondered. Would she need to find an equivalent source of nourishment in those with the Positive Energy trait? That would be impossible. If she consumed benevolent Lantern Archons, the Church and the Tower would put a sizable bounty on her head.
Still, if her hypothesis was correct, did it mean that she could also come into possession of other elements? With a little reflection, Gwen realised the answer was no. She was confident that she felt nothing when Caliban consumed the Land Shark. It was already a miracle that she could tap into two.
Her Master had a unique talent of tapping into all four Primary elements, but Henry was one in a million. If asked to create spells of pure water or fire, Henry would struggle to perform his channelling with a practical level of efficiency. Thus far, she had never heard of anyone possessing two Elements.
Then there was that emerald lightning that Almudj used as well. It was unlike anything she had cast herself.
How could she tap into that hidden power?
Gwen thought about the three months ahead.
She would have to make a decision very soon.
To train in Abjuration would mean she had a viable shield. She could protect Elvia and or Yue, act as their Tank.
To train in Divination meant she had better awareness of the battlefield, maybe even Scry on enemies from afar.
To train in Transmutation meant she could focus on self-buffs, eventuating in Flight at tier three.
She could also empower her Evocation spells, try to hit tier 4 and gain access to more destructive incantations.
Finally, she could perfect Conjuration, develop new attacks for Ariel and Caliban, or focus on fortifying her persistent effect spells.
The dilemma was that she only had time for one of these things, and she had to maximise her time investment. For the duration of her watch, Gwen pondered her options, playing scenario after scenario over in her mind.
Then, without warning, the indefinite horizon became a thin white line.
A red-gold disc rose, dispelling the lustrous purple blackness of the softening night. The silver glow of the moon warmed, waning in intensity, replaced by a honey-coloured diffusion that soothed the distant horizon. The limestone ridges kissed the shining tree-tops, setting fire to the once dark bush.
Even as a frequent traveller of the Outback, she felt shaken by the majesty, caught in the glory of the wide, brown land.
"Thanks, Alumdj." Her words flew into the wide blue yonder.
The girls were soon roused and readied for the journey ahead. Gwen used her long-range Message device to contact Rhodes, and the ranch-owner arranged transport for the girls back to Surya's estate.
The rest of the journey took half-a-day to reach the highway and another six hours from the shield-gate. It was late afternoon when they arrived at Rhodes's ranch.
Upon their parting with Tommy, Gwen collected in a small pouch a good handful of LDM crystals worth a thousand or so dollars for the jackaroo. He tried to decline the offer, but Gwen wouldn't have it.
"You deserve it, Tommy," Gwen said sympathetically, hugging the jackaroo. "You did so much for us, and all we did was sour your relationship with your folks and put you in danger. More than anything, I should be apologising to you and asking for your forgiveness."
"You are too good, Missus Boss," Tommy replied, his voice cracked from gratitude. "Come back and visit anytime, you know where Tommy is."
"I will Tommy, take care of the horses!" Gwen gave Tommy a peck on the cheek, watching him return to the other drovers on the ranch and smiling as they punched him.
Rhodes then took the girls home, asking them about the trip.
The girls had nothing but praises for Tommy.
"Yeah right, I reckon he was just scared shitless the whole time." Rhodes was more than pleased. "I'll let the boy know he'll be getting a raise, courtesy of you being his referee."
Rhodes stopped for a chat with Surya before he left.
The girls made their curtsies known to the old Enchanter and rushed for the showers, far too fatigued to remain for small talk. Gwen however, stayed with her grandfather, sharing her knowledge of the event.
"Good grief." Surya swallowed uncertainly. "Turn around."
Gwen turned, collecting her hair in one hand.
Surya placed a finger on to the scale affixed to her skin and incanted a command for the item to loosen itself. It refused to budge.
He pulled at it with his fingers, watching it tug at Gwen's skin.
Gwen cried out when the discomfort became unbearable.
"That's interesting." Surya scratched his beard. "I feel like the scale has fused with a part of your skin. I could remove it by force, but, it doesn't seem harmful in any way. I've only seen this in Legacy items."
Gwen begged Surya for more details.
"It's like this," Surya explained. "Very rarely, an item has been in the family bloodline, or passed down from generation to generation, or survived such cataclysmic magical ordeals, that they gain a special kind of bond with its users. The Japanese Mages had a specific term for them, which they call Tsukumogami, applicable to tools or enchanted heirlooms."
"The effects differ, of course, but a common fact is that these items become more powerful as the user grows more powerful. They possess the ability to imbue boosted effects onto future generations of users."
"Does this mean the scale will grow more powerful as I attain higher tiers of magic?" Gwen moved forward to the edge of her seat, her risen octave betraying her anticipation.
"I don't see why not." Surya smiled, tapping the scale gently. When her Opa touched the scale again, Gwen moaned, feeling as though someone had poked her insides. "Oh dear—"
Gwen moved a little distance away. "Thanks, Opa."
"And your story." Surya scratched his white beard. "I wonder why the serpent attacked your friend Debora but no one else."
Gwen raised a few points of hypothesis—
One, Debora was from an old family of staunch Christians. There was such a thing as Faith Magic, and Debora did get Blessed by the Bishop.
Two, Debora was the only one of them in possession of an elemental spirit.
Three, Debora was somewhat hostile to the Indigenous folk they had met the entire way, barring Tommy, with whom she was already acquainted.
Surya shook his head. None of these theories satisfied what Gwen had described.
"Maybe it was just a coincidence?" Surya suggested, shrugging his bony shoulders. "I'd hardly imagine that a primordial spirit would care for a high school girl. Well, besides yourself. What was it like to channel its power?"
"It was like energy was building up from the ambient mana of the earth and sky," Gwen described. "It didn't feel like a spell."
Surya didn't have an answer to that either. So much knowledge about the Spirit Magic of the local tribes was censored, destroyed, their Walkers castigated by witch hunters and then butchered. He doubted that even the indigenous folk themselves had an answer for Gwen's circumstance.
"Just concentrate on the road ahead," Surya advised, his voice mellow. "Sometimes, all a man can do is wait and see."
"I know, Opa. Thanks."
Gwen bid Surya goodnight, planting a wet sloppy kiss on her Opa's forehead.
"I'll be gone first thing tomorrow morning. I'll see you at Kwan's estate in the avo or at night. Get some rest. It's going to be a busy day ahead. Remember to dress nicely! We're expecting guests!"
When Gwen finally arrived at her room, the other girls were already asleep.
She took another shower, a hot one this time, and felt the tension just melt from her weary bones. She didn't possess the same constitution as the others, and the horse riding had taken its toll. Towelling off, she fell into bed and was instantly asleep after forty-eight hours of wakefulness.