It took only ten minutes to find their man - Singapore was, after all, an expensive place to live and work.
Mr Entrepreneur was bought for twenty HDM crystals, with a bonus of two more if they returned to Singapore without incident. The Captain, going by the singular name of Sukarno, was a crafty, middle-aged fellow formerly from Indonesia. Taking advantage of Singapore’s offer of open immigration for Mages with useful talents, the Water-Transmuter found his way to the city and now operated a small trawler with a dozen NoMs for a crew that prowled the coastal waters for shrimp and squid. The ship itself appeared weather-beaten and well-seasoned, but was also well maintained by the prideful captain, insistent that he routinely inspected every nook and cranny for both mechanical and arcane failure.
The mechanism of the ship itself was of much fascination to Gwen, who’d never seen trawlers in action, even in her old world. Two arms extended from either side of the eighty-footer ship, anchored to its riveted hull, giving it the comical expression of a boat taking to the wind. From the arms, an assortment of accessories dangled - Daylight slabs for attracting squid, nylon-mesh for trawling prawn.
“You’re looking for an island called Abang, in the Riau chain, about sixty kilometres outside Shielding coverage from Batam,” Captain Sukarno recapped after pocketing ten of the HDM crystals, the other half delivered upon safe return. “It’s a Black Zone, so we’ll have to duck in and out real quick lah.”
He turned to Gwen with mixed feelings of interest and scepticism.
“A bit dangerous for a pretty girl like you, lah? You look too tender, going to get gobbled up by the island for sure.”
“I'll be fine, maybe tell me about your ship? What's her name?” Gwen pivoted the topic as they made their way down the docks towards 'Kingfisher 5'. When Gwen further inquired why ‘5’, Sukarno told her that it made others think he had four other trawlers.
"What if we run into Mermen outside the Barrier?"
“Not much chance of that. If we do, you guys take care of that, la? We not exactly following maritime protocol where we go, so I taking only trusted crew of old lads. Don’t expect help from Navy if we get sunk.”
“You’re not going to let that happen, lah?” Gwen answered with a natural inflexion of the infectious discourse particle - when in Rome, do as the Romans la.
“Ha.” Sukarno grinned broadly. “I take you all back in one piece, lah. No trouble.”
They boarded at the end of the port, drawing curious eyes from the crews of the other ships. Gwen in particular, caught the eyes of strangers wherever she ventured. It was hard to miss a six-foot, leggy Eurasian in a green retro-dress, even in a sea of staked ships and knotted sails.
“You should change into something that won’t take on so much water, lah,” Sukarno suggested as his crew emerged to greet the group of Mages, bowing deeply, not daring to meet their eyes as they announced their names. Sukarno pointed to the last NoM in the row of indistinct dark bodies. “This is Arnav, my First Mate.”
A skinny Indian who looked in his thirties waved at them, staring straight down at his feet.
“Hi, I am Gwen, Gwen Song, these are my companions, Paul, Taj, Jonas, and this is my father, Morye."
In response, Arnav ducked and bowed in quick succession, greeting each of them before moving off, still staring intently at the ground, to work the riggings.
“Sorry about that, lah. They not deal with Mages much. Normally its just me, and they know me.”
“It’s okay.” Gwen watched the crew, six NoMs working the boat’s cranks and levers as they began to drift from the dock. It was queer that the seamen seemed to be avoiding them entirely, not even looking towards them, or herself, with curiosity.
The trawler pulled from its mooring silently. Once cleared of its attachments and lines, Sukarno fired up the mana-engine, issuing twin jets of water from the ship's aft as the propulsion began to spearhead the vessel out towards the sheltered egg of the Singapore Strait.
When the boat penetrated the first layer of the Fortress Cities’ Shielding Stations, the air immediately became cool and briny.
“What a difference,” Gwen noted to her companions. “Wonder why it's so hot in the city?”
“It’s the Shielding Resonators,” Sukarno shouted back. “Singapore is very safe city lah. We have three-layer shield! The Batam Islands, the artificial islands of the Strait, and the main station on Sentosa. Problems is it make city very humid in summer.”
“Singapore is the safest frontier region in the southern hemisphere,” Jonas affirmed Sukarno’s commentary. “Almost as expensive to live in as a tier 1 city too, especially near the CBD and the Clementi hills.”
The conversation drifted here and there, pivoting toward Singapore and the island whenever Sukarno's curiosity moved toward Gwen, her family, and life in Australia. After a few awkward moments of silence, the Captain took the hint.
The artificial islands they passed transformed from commercial to industrial, then to lone installations with military utility. Freight ships likewise formed a line around the Singapore Strait, creating a veritable bulwark of freight and cargo.
The journey to Abang was anticipated to take six hours. By the fourth hour, they were clear of the safety buffer created by the final layer of Barrier Shielding.
“Everyone! Arnav! Keep eye peeled for Mermen!” Sukarno barked at his crew, then politely asked Gwen and her party to be vigilant as well.
Thankfully, the final two hours of their journey proved uneventful. There were a few curious incidents with local marine-life that came to inspect the trawler, but a few demonstrative blasts from Gwen inspired both confidence in the crew and wariness in the local wildlife.
“Woa! Quasi-element! That’s nice, lah!” Sukarno exclaimed happily. The more accomplished his cargo of passengers, the safer their haphazard trip outside the Shield would prove to be. Whatever designs his passengers had on the island, Sukarno wasn’t adverse to easier money.
“Thanks.” Gwen flashed him a toothy grin, making the Captain smirk appreciatively. When the wind picked up and the spray became too much, the party retreated into the cabin from which Sukarno steered the vessel.
Sukarno offered her a newspaper that he’d picked up at the port authority, bold with Sydney-centric headlines in dark lettering.
“Hey, you guys from Australia yeah? Sorry about Sydney lah, it sounded like a real tragedy. I hope all your family are safe.”
The men took the paper and gave the headlines a browse, their jaws firmly clenched as they read the latest body-count. When Jonas turned onto page four, he paused to steal a forlorn look toward Gwen.
“What’s up?” Gwen noticed the sudden tension in the air. “Is something the matter?”
Jonas folded the paper and passed it over.
She opened the tabloid spread and read silently to herself.
“Sydney - Seven days after the Sydney Incident, Magister Henry Kilroy is entombed in a ceremony attended by colleagues, presided over by his apprentices - the Paladin Gunther von Shultz, and the famous sorceress Alesia de Botton, still recovering from her injuries incurred in defence of the city.”
There was a full-colour page attached, showing Alesia in a wheelchair beside Gunther, together with other prominent Magisters, carrying a casket through St Andrews Cathedral, where presumably her Master’s empty sarcophagus would be symbolically interred in the catacombs with past Magisters that had fallen in service to the city.
To be inhumed and remembered in a place of public worship was a great honour, one that Gunther had fought tooth and nail to attain for his Master.
“In remembrance of the Late Magister Kilroy, Lord Gunther gave a eulogy to an audience of prominent figures, citing Lord Kilroy’s contribution to establishing the Tower System, his gallantry in the Saurian War and the ongoing Coral Sea Conflict, and his immutable contribution to the prosperity Sydney had enjoyed before the incident. In closing, Lord Gunther has promised to continue the legacy of his master, dedicating his life to reconstructing Sydney and restoring it to its glory as the economic centre of the Coral Sea. This news is met with no surprise, as both Melbourn and Brisbane Towers had voted to move Lord Gunther into the position of Master...”
Gwen scanned through the article, founding a particular quote extracted for a bleed-out by the reporter.
“To my Master’s loved ones who are unable to be here today, wherever you maybe be, however far you are from Sydney, our hearts are with you.”
It was an innocuous line, but Gwen knew that her Master had no other family left and that Gunther had intended it for herself. She clutched the paper in her hand and felt an indescribable feeling wringing her heart. Though only for a minute, Gwen felt a longing for the familiar, a yearning for a place she'd left a mere seven days ago - she felt homesick.
“You okay?” Jonas' voice was kind and reassuring.
“Yeah.” Gwen looked ahead at the spray of sea striking the panes of the cabin. “I am fine.”
* * *
The island fast approached.
In the ensuing lull of the final hour, the party changed into a long-sleeved skin-suits constructed from a material that was both breathable and pliable. The gunmetal suit was standard military issue, and so left an unreasonable length of Gwen’s ankles exposed, giving the professional attire the unexpected, mirthful appearance of jeggings. The amphibious hiking boots they had acquired from the quartermaster of the Brisbane Tower likewise had a low ankle line, which further ensured that a few centimetres of her flesh were left exposed. Under the circumstances though, there was no helping it. Fuelled by paranoid visions of bugs and wayward snakes in unassuming bushes, Gwen pondered the possibility of undergoing the entire operation clad in Bark Skin. Over her skin-suit, she wore a set of combat-meshes that made her perk bosoms less attention-seeking, loaded with Healing, Universal Antidote, and Cure Disease potions.
When Morye emerged, Gwen was surprised to see that her father's musculature was as sculpted as the military men's, with nary an ounce of extra fat on his torso. With his preference for slightly loose shirts and casual wear, she’d always imagined Morye with an endearing little beer belly and a muffin top overhang.
“Wow, this is much better than what my division used to ration,” Morye noted with pleasure, pulling at the stretchy fabric. “Morphic as well, very nice.”
“What’d you used to wear?”
“Un-enchanted Cotton,” Morye pulled his vest and pants over the skinsuit. "I'll have this on top though. Walking around in just the suit feels strange."
Gwen felt herself becoming conscious of the skin-tight suit. She had the mesh on top, but maybe she should also put on some pants? That would impede her movement though, becoming snagged by branches or bushes, or even precarious places for insects to latch on.
The Island came into view with about quarter of an hour left to their journey. Even from a distance they could see that Abang was verdant with wildlife, with canopies that reached twenty to thirty meters, stretching well above the island’s base. Many of the archipelagos in the Strait grew from volcanic eruptions. The landscape tended to be unpredictable; possessing caverns, hills, sheer drops, and even vertical cliffs that rose out of nowhere.
“We’ll be mooring in an inlet at the south of the island, there should be a pebble-beach there,” Sukarno explained. “You have two nights, three days. Come Sunday high-tide; I go back to the mainland, that okay lah?”
In theory that was ample time. The island was small enough to be circumvented on foot in a day. It was the jungle that was going to impede them.
Jonas materialised a Message Device the size of his arm.
“We’ll keep in contact if we’re early or late. We’ll pay you extra if we extend past the agreed time.”
“Of course,” Captain Sukarno inclined his head in acknowledgement, pulling the military-issue communicator towards him and inspecting it. “O course, just remember I also need to consider safety of crew.”
“Agreed.” Jonas turned to Paul. “Let’s get moving.”
Paul drew a few glyphs over the party. “Mass Water Walk.”
As Paul worked his magic, the trawler moved into the inlet, setting anchor a hundred meters or so from the shore. The weighty anchor struck the bottom with a thunk, stirring the white sand below, sending up a cloud of silt and silica. When the chain became taut, Sukarno indicated that the party was free to proceed.
Walking on water was a strange experience that felt as though one was skipping to and fro from a series of trampolines. The enchantment that empowered the spell created a layer of hydrophobic mana around the caster’s lower body, lifting them from the liquid and propelling them from footfall to footfall.
Gwen almost lost her footing a few times, but the others caught her before she could strike the water and transform into a bedraggled spectacle.
By the time they had reached shore, Gwen was sure that Sukarno and the crew were blue with laughter at her comical incompetence.
A quick count at the beach and the party was at the tree-line.
The immediate vegetation was taller than they had anticipated now that they were face to face with its verdurous growth. The palms themselves reached dozens of metres, with girth as thick as a man’s torso. Deeper into the canopy, sunlight became a rare luxury.
“Alright! Form up!” Jonas commanded the party. “Gear check!”
With Gwen standing to attention, the Major fixed combat straps and double checked bandoleers, making sure Gwen and his men were suitably attired. Morye he left well alone, the Magus making it self-evident that he did not desire to be manhandled, citing that he would suit up in his lavish Salt Armour if it came to it.
“Alright, buff up!”
“Mass Bark Skin.”
"Mass Dark Vision."
Gwen was singled out for a few extra buffs from both Paul and Taj, who likewise buffed themselves.
“Protection from Poison”
The party then formed into marching order. Taj lead with his Shield and Earthen Mage armour, moulding around him like a suit of half plate. He was followed by Gwen, who was a staple DPS output with Lightning, especially supplemented by her Void. The middle was held down by Morye, who could immediately help Gwen with his Abjuration as well as hold his own with his Transmutation. Their fourth and fifth man was Jonas, followed by Paul, who was responsible for leaving behind trail markings for the orientation of his translocation spells.
“Detect Magic!” Gwen incanted, her eyes taking on the soft glow of Divination.
She scanned the immediate distance in front of her up to thirty meters or so, finding a miasma of mana permeating the dense foliage like a stream of multi-coloured pendants.
“It's too dense. I can’t see the trees for the forest.” Gwen dispelled her Detect Magic, resting her eyes as the mana flushed from her pupils.
“No helping it then. Just be vigilant. Let's move out.” Taj took the first step, swinging a machete enchanted with a blessing of Keenness into the flora.
As they penetrated farther into the rainforest, Gwen began to spot exotic fauna that darted into cover as they moved through the dense tropical jungle.
A curious pair of white-beaked birds of paradise, perhaps wary of their invasive entry into their home, began to follow them, chirping and screeching every time Taj took his blade to the vines and trellises that barred their way.
Gwen couldn’t help but notice that some of the vines too, bled a strange, red substance instead of the white ichor common to the strangler-creepers, attracting great hosts of insects such as ping-headed ants with jaws as wide as their bodies and orange-jacketed wasps that greedily dived into the crystallising carmine residue.
“Four degrees to your right,’ Paul corrected their vector, aided by his triangulation beacons. Taj adjusted his position and shifted the direction of their progress. In his hand, Paul held an enchanted compass that resisted obfuscation magic and native interference, keeping a true north heedless of illusion or enchantment.
Their progress slowed as the loose groves of palm turned into dense coppices of white jasmine and moon orchid. Taj became more cautious as he hacked through the leafage, wary of falling crawlies and slithering things with many legs skittering away as they crashed through the verdure.
“Good grief, what’s that smell!” Gwen uttered, unexpectedly assailed by a scent of horrid decay a few hours into their trek.
“Something dead, from the smell of it, carrion?” Taj pulled apart a thicket of vines. “I think I see something.”
They had arrived at a small clearing, where an enormous bulb towered towards the dim light of the canopy. Its flower was already in full bloom, revealing a fleshy hood of purple-pink that wrapped around a tremendous ochre phallus towering up to three meters.
“It smells like… shit, actual shit.” Taj marvelled. “Jesus, what in the world?”
“Alright, form up, don’t move. Eyes open. We’ll check for hostiles and move around it.” Jonas commanded. “Gwen?”
The jungle itself was verdant with rampant motes of elemental water and earth. When she looked towards the flower, she couldn’t help but notice that the corpse-smelling flower seemed to be coalescing dark, shadowy specks at its base.
“I sense… negative energy at its core.” Gwen felt a Eureka moment catalysing a certain ambitious hypothesis. “Do you suppose negative energy exists in nature?”
“Life and death in balance, that is the way of the natural world.” Jonas scanned the jungle with his eyes. “If I recall, this is a corpse flower, a Titan Arum, a carnivorous creature that feeds by attracting insects with its stench of decay-”
“Hold up.” Gwen motioned for the group to stay still. "I see something coming."
“Warding Bond.” Taj incanted softly, suffusing the party with a mute, earthen shimmer. Gwen recognised it as an Abjuration spell which shared damage between the caster and its targets, giving the entire party the ability to resist harm both magical and mundane.
In Gwen’s eyes, she saw a slithering, crawling stream of elemental earth, tinged with specks of negative mana, moving from the canopies and down towards the flower’s vivid display of vibrant elements and grey-black negative energy.
In the eyes of the others, they saw a giant centipede a meter in length, as thick as Gwen’s thighs, meandering past the small clearing and toward the stem of the Titan Arum. Like twin sets of perfectly synched piano keys in motion, its legs latched onto the stem.
"Is it a prey?" Gwen asked.
To their surprise, the centipede wasn’t trying to climb the flower. Instead, it was attempting to borrow straight through the base toward the nectar of necrotic energy.
“Smart bugger.” Paul grimaced. “I think it's probably a Magical Creature with at least low cunning.”
Gwen meanwhile, couldn’t take her eyes off the coalesced core of negative energy. She recalled her growth in Lightning affinity after Caliban took in Wanka. Could this also mean that she could supplement her Void element’s affinity by consuming natural flora and fauna?
“I need that thing,” Gwen announced to the group. “Can I get some cover fire if things go south?”
Morye looked up with annoyance but said nothing.
“What’re you thinking of?”
“Absorbing those creatures,” Gwen confessed, though in a manner that misled their understanding of her methodology. “Caliban needs to eat live prey to mature.”
The men saw the disgusted looks on each other’s faces.
“Alright, go ahead.” Taj double checked his warding bond and gave the go ahead.
Opportunities for gaining resources for one’s craft seldom appeared in mundane life. It was only on adventures such as these that Mages encountered haphazard brushes with boons and banes. At the risk of mortal injury, it was possible to rapidly gain unique abilities by testing oneself against the chaotic flora and fauna of the Wildlands.
“Caliban!” Gwen whispered, kneeling close toward the ground to release Caliban discretely. To her surprise, it wasn’t the spider form that appeared, but its usual serpentine likeness. Did Caliban adjust its appearance for the occasion? She wondered. Mentally commanding Caliban to transform on the ship hadn’t helped.
Silently the slithering Caliban meandered through the tall grass, moving ever closer to the centipede busy at work.
When it came within range, it turned its lamprey’s mouth towards Gwen imploringly.
“Want a hand?”
Gwen suppressed as much of the spell as she could before releasing it as a muffled blow just above the centipede’s many eyes.
A dull thud echoed across the immediate space of the clearing. A bolt of lightning materialised from her fingertips, flashing across the distance between Gwen and the centipede before striking it squarely on the head, momentarily stunning it.
A pair of flesh hooks launched from Caliban’s maw, taking the centipede by the rear. Twitching wildly, it dragged the still paralysed creature towards its jaws. With a sound more akin to slurping ramen, Caliban sucked its many-legged morsel into its lamprey's mouth, effortlessly sliding its meter-long body into its bottomless gullet.
The party winced as the last of the giant centipede’s tendrils disappeared.
“I am not sure what I was expecting,” Paul remarked, his face paler for the experience.
Gwen then pointed Caliban to the base of the plant. In place of the now deceased centipede, Caliban latched itself onto the thick stem and began to secrete a dark substance which instantly melted the fibrous plating of the Arum.
In a moment it broke through into the pool of feral scented briny liquid, spilling it over the forest floor. A wave of nauseating scent exploded over the party like the world itself just farted wetly.
“My eyes are watering.” Morye covered his nose and mouth. “I can taste it. Why, Gwen. Can't you power up like a normal Mage?”
The other three men were silent, bearing the singular assault of the exquisite stench with voiceless fortitude.
“Control Wind!” Morye desperately incanted, feeing the air displace about them, sending the stench up on high. “Oh, sweet, sweet breath of life.”
Gwen meanwhile, seemed entirely unaffected. She was watching through her mana-infused vision, Caliban’s dark mass of Void-matter draining away the tenebrous motes of negative energy. With a final crunch, Caliban ate through the base of the towering flower, and the thing began to collapse.
“Caliban!” Gwen hissed, and the creature de-materialised, returning to its pocket dimension.
The party watched the Titan Arum crash against the forest floor.
“Okay, let's keep going,” Jonas commanded, wary of any attention they'd have drawn. “Paul?"
The group plunged again into the thick green sea, hacking and hewing through a green barrier that seemed never-ending.
“Hows our return track?” Jonas asked their Translocation specialist.
“Beacons active, all sound. No tampering,” Paul returned after a moment’s concentration.
The day began to wane as the group made slow progress. A few more encounters with ambitious local fauna resulted in some hairy moments of thrilling combat, but a few touches of healing magic from Jonas ensured that the group remained in tip-top form.
By nightfall, the group estimated that it had made an ingress of about ten kilometres toward the centre of the island, where the towering Bayan trees could just be seen from outside. With any luck, they should penetrate into the region where the Dryads made their home the next day.
As most of the creatures on the island preferred nocturnal activity, it became too dangerous to move through the uncertain shadows cast by Dancing Lights and Daylight, which both dazzled the eyes and made discerning fauna from foliage impossible.
Gwen produced their shelter, the Portable Habitat, and placed a HDM crystal into the slot at its base.
She invoked the glyph of activation. The model habitat quickly grew into a portal that shimmered in the middle of the forest, invisible and shielded except to registered members of her party.
Gwen stepped into the shelter to find a large, multi-bedroomed bungalow formed from aluminium and glass in the Bauhaus style, sitting in an area that was grey and mute. There lacked a sense of finiteness about the space, even gazing past the confines of the bungalow’s white fence gave her an uncomfortable feeling of being lost in a place of grey-nothingness.
“I think its obvious that you shouldn’t be wandering out into the ethereal world.” Jonas proceeded past Gwen. “Give me the Decanter of Endless Water, I’ll get the showers and the kitchen set up.”
“There are showers?” Gwen could feel the humidity congealing like stick brine between herself and the skin suit. The breathing fabric didn’t help, not when the moisture felt like a film of warm water in the jungle.
“Well, it only produces so much at once.” he grinned as Gwen gushed at the thought of a cold shower under fresh water. “Though I’d recommend you use your own Conjuration cantrips if you’re going to be in there for long. We need to fill up our supplies and make dinner as well, you know.”
“I am just happy enough there’s an actual shower.” Gwen pushed past the door, the alien anxiety of the grey-void forgotten. “What’s for chow?”
“Noodles, I’d imagine. Pasta and the like. Storage Ring Pot Luck?”
Gwen had the most extensive storage space out of all of them and so had become the proverbial mule for their dietary supplies.
“I’ll lay em out on the kitchen island, give me a sec.”
It was such a jarring difference, to be trekking through a Black Zone jungle one moment, and then suddenly they were in a safe pocket-space with working stoves, showers, and actual beds. She couldn’t imagine what it would have been like if they had to find shelter in the trees, as her High-school Field Trip had done. Was this the difference between adventuring with professionals, and adventuring with poorly equipped amateurs? Then again, as students, they had been in a Green Zone - where this was a Zone where moving at night was a recipe for constant ambush and disaster.
Gwen felt every anticipation satisfied after she’d emerged refreshed from a cold shower, arriving at the dinner table to find Jonas humorously in an apron, serving bowls of aromatic Bolognese.
“Pepper?” Jonas enquired.
“Parmesan too, please.” Gwen indulged herself.
When all was said and done, the party retired to bed. Gwen had the master to herself, whilst the men took over the living room. Her father, Morye, had the guest room for his own privacy.
The snoring of the military men was like rolling thunder as the night progressed, softly vibrating the windows of the bungalow. Gwen was glad that her doors were stout oak, thick and substantial, capable of keeping out the three diesel generators running in unison.
An alarm sounded at what must be six or so in the morning, signifying that the pocket space would soon be consumed and its inhabitants ejected. A quick breakfast of cereal and ration ensued while the member once again equipped themselves for the dense jungle.
Taj volunteered to venture outside first, but Gwen convinced them to substitute Ariel instead. When the little marten reported no immediate alarm nor danger, the rest of the crew followed.
True to the quartermaster’s words, the clearing they’d cut had almost grown back entirely in the time that they’d been asleep.
“How're the beacons?” Jonas asked Paul.
The Translocation specialist drew a few sigils in the air.
“A few left, enough for us to triangulate our way back. The missing glyphs start about three kilometres back, extending to the five-kilometre marker.”
“Alright, let's get going. Keep up the beacons, Paul.”
Their progress became impeded an hour later when Taj halted at an unexpected clearing.
It was an unusual sight, the blue sky above catching them all unexpectedly and stunning their Dark Vision buffs. They’d been hacking through the densest part of the jungle yet when Taj’s machete struck a tree, only to find the offending branches hollow and empty.
“Huh?” He stumbled forward as his weighted blow fell short, stepping unexpectedly into a clearing. It was decidedly an abnormal formation, for the thick foliage just gave way as though they’d crossed over an invisible threshold.
When the rest of the party joined the bewildered Taj, they began to spot all kinds of local lifeforms - in the skeletal sense.
Birds seemed to be the mainstay of the collected boneyard, scattering through the fallen logs and stripped branches devoid of leafy green matter. Shells of large insects filled the spaces where the white bones of fallen birds languished, mounds of chitin and shells formed into vague shapes of their previous occupants, creating a grisly game of guess the fauna.
“On it. Detect Magic!”
Gwen made a mental note to learn more specific Detection Divinations as she turned her eyes upon the unnaturally cleared space. Above the ground were scattered motes of elemental air. Below, was a solid mass of roving elemental earth, so thick and voluminous as to be a carpet of ochre shifting to and fro.
“Incoming!” she called out. “Out of the clearing now! They’re below us!”
A soldier ant emerged head first, a three-inch long length of obsidian mandibles slicing the air hungrily as it burst through the fallen vegetation. Another broke out a split second later, followed by a dozen, a hundred, a thousand - innumerable heads of various shapes and sizes, all expertly armed with scythe-like jaws both large and small.
The party reacted immediately, turning about and making for the assumed detour.
“Eight O’clock! Then 5 O’clock after two hundred meters!” Paul commanded. Jonas materialised another Keen-enchanted machete, opening a path ahead.
“Shield of Faith!”
The half-dome shield of positive energy wasn’t as effective against physical attacks as plain-old Mage Armour, but it would have to do.
“Shit, they’re gaining on us!”
By now the flood of ants had emerged from the mounds. When Gwen took another gander in-between the motion of her pumping legs taking her as far away as possible from the darkening landscape of the swarm, she noted that they were the same pin-headed critters they had previously seen. She remarked the proboscidean attachments on their heads, wondering if it was a stabbing implement, or perhaps some feeding mechanism.
A handful of the ants fell onto Taj from above, landing on his Mage Armour. The group heard a sizzling sound as the spell of oxidising stone filled the air. Gwen had her answer - the needler ants were ejaculating some corrosive, milky liquid from the tips of their heads.
“By Shiva!” Taj shook off the offending insect by dispelling and re-summoning the Mage Armour. “Can we go any faster?”
“It's too thick!” Jonas called out from up ahead.
“We have to fight them! Shit! Arrgh!” Paul shouted as his hand brushed against a tree haphazardly. “Fuck!”
Whatever Paul had grasped with a wayward hand in the heat of the moment had secreted a substance that removed a layer of skin from his hand.
“Don’t touch the trees! Some of them are carnivorous! Healing Word!”
Her repertoire of spells flashed across Gwen's mind, begging for one with relevant utility. None of her spells had sufficient AOE potential to clear millions of minuscule insects at once, that was one of the fundamental fallacies of the Lightning Element. Gwen cursed - If Yue had been here...
She would have to make do.
A slithering serpent slipped from a dark tear in thin air.
“Drop and roll!”
Caliban dived into the swarm of ants and began to roll like a child amongst fresh linen snow. Now almost a meter and a half in length, it carved a path through the ants. The Swarm seemed to know instinctively that the Void-filled Caliban wasn’t food, and so parted from the slithering thing as though it was Void-Moses parting the ant sea.
A ball of ants, taking advantage of the height offered by the foliage, began to rain upon them, blooming into vicious sacks of acid and venom as they landed suicidally on the Mage’s Shields. With the shimmering of their expanded Mana Shields, the Mage’s progress became even slower, becoming impeded by the flickering of one another’s projected, semi-spherical buffers as they tried to escape the swarm.
“That’s it. We have to fight this out!” Jonas commanded them. “Watch for friendly fire, AOE at will. Taj! Explosive Warding Glyph! Maximum range centred on you!”
“Got it!” Gwen’s shrill voice pierced through the baritone of the crew.
To Jonas’ surprise, Gwen manifested a dark shield of obsidian Void as Jonas began to draw the repulsion Glyph. The dusky barrier flickered into being with a hiss, consuming all it touched. When the swarm of ants ran into its base, there was a sound of sizzling like white-hot metal quenched in oily fat.
Gwen's face immediately turned a shade of white. Not even the buffer energy left by Almudj was enough to mitigate the drain caused by hundreds of thousands of minuscule insects marching like kamikaze lemmings towards certain doom.
“Shit!” Jonas shot Gwen a bolt of positive energy, restoring some colour to her face. “Taj! How long?”
In the chaos of their frenetic actions, midst the rain of falling insects scattering upon their diminishing mana shields. Morye acted.
“Empowered Transmute Salt!”
The group felt a surge of elemental water gather beside them like a gravity well, their skin instantly becoming dry as their hair becoming encrusted with crystalline strings of white-pink Salt. Morye gathered the spell-force in his hand and struck the ground beneath them, transmuting all within a radius of thirty or so meters into a world of pink.
It was as though a sudden frost had taken over the forest. All moisture, both flora and fauna, became fuel for the growth of saline snow.
The ants too, burst into crumbling masses of desiccated shells, a veritable river of black sand mixing in with the white.
Morye, his face a little paler for the effort, pulled his arm from the pillar of salt that had formed where he stood. His clothes, his combat mesh, his hair and his exposed skin, were all covered with a thin layer of saline dust.
“Should have just done that first thing,” Morye noted nonchalantly as the others shook themselves from the unforeseen circumstance of their escape from imminent doom. “Gwen, don’t do that Shield. It’s the stupidest thing a Void Mage can do. You just lost life invoking it, and lost life absorbing those ants.”
“I had to protect Taj,” Gwen replied sulkily. If Morye could have resolved the problem, he should have just done so in the first place. Why the delay, why the running? Why the endangerment if he had a solution up his sleeve all along?
“You live and learn.” Morye shrugged. “By the way, I think we’re going to have company.”
The once verdant jungle, now a world of snow sculptures, was beginning to crumble around them.
“Which direction? Thanks for the save, by the way.” Jonas wasn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Whatever his intentions, Morye had saved them from a pyrrhic victory, and that was commendable in itself. “Hostiles?”
Morye tapped his nose.
“I smell perfume.”
There was a distinct sound of distorting wood. It was a bizarre onomatopoeia, a kind of creak and groan that was at once the rapid growth of wood as well as the splintering of its fibres. Gwen had heard it many times before in the Grot, playing in the backdrop of her conversations and lesson with Henry as Sufina tended to her grove.
A trove of island pine that had survived the salt-apocalypse parted to reveal a giantess clad in yellow and bronze, her face a vision of loin-tingling allure. A full head of autumn tresses fell like a scintillating waterfall from her head, framing exquisite, leafy brows that defined a pair of burnishing eyes sparkling like emeralds.
“Oh,” Jonas muttered. “Oh dear.”
“Woa,” Paul mouthed, his mouth becoming a perfect O.
Taj brushed the ants from his body and made ready to finish that Glyph of Warding.
Gwen felt her spine tingle with expectation and anticipation, a flood of words reaching the tip of her tongue. How should she engage the Dryad? Should she immediately mention Sufina and demand access to the Grot? Should they perhaps parley with it and negotiate the terms of their passage? What was it that a Dryad wanted from them? HDM Crystals maybe, magic items, conceivably it would demand one of the men?
She had given this moment days of speculation, but now that they had found themselves a three-meter tall goddness of exquisite wood, with bolted on breasts easily as large as her torso, Gwen discovered that she was lost for words.
“Hey there, Beauty Queen.”
A husky voice sounded beside them, full of confidence and without a smidgen of hesitation. The party turned to see Morye as they had never seen him before, upright, tall, at-ease, his face chilled and handsome, his hair slicked back and flawless. When he smiled, there was an aura of exuberance and self-assurance, aplomb with elegant confidence.
“Hello there,” the leaves rustled as the giantess spoke, her eyes gleaming as she looked down and saw Morye grinning at her. “Are you humans lost?”
“Lost and found.” Morye made a subtle flourish. Much to the party's consternation, he approached the Dryad without so much as manifesting a suit of Salt Amour. “But I could just as easily lose myself with you.”
Gwen felt a glob of vomit forcing its way up her throat and into her mouth.
“Oh, my!” The dryad seemed taken aback by Morye's candidness. “What can I do for you?”
“Ah, the things we could do could make even the gardens blush.” Morye smoothly replied without breaking eye contact. “But yes, we would like to find a certain Mistress Sufina, though as for myself, I would be delighted to make your acquaintance in the meanwhile.”
Gwen wondered if Dryads could excrete cold sweat because she was already sweltering with nausea.
“Oh, you’re Sufi’s friends?” The Dryad’s eyes lit up, casting a luminous glow on her face. “Come this way then, hee hee hee, let me show you the way to the Grot. We’ll have so much fun, I am sure.”
The woods parted as the dryad moved, opening a path for the party to follow.
Gwen forced the sputum down her throat and gathered her wits about her. She turned to see the others, Paul, Taj, and Jonas, looking towards Morye with faces full of admiration and worship.
“Wow…” Paul said to Taj. “Reckon he runs workshops?”
Gwen turned and stomped after the Dryad, biting her lips in frustration.