Their Mr Entrepreneur was bought for twenty HDM crystals, with 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 prowling 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 with an assortment of accessories dangled from the arms, possessed of everything from Daylight Glyphs for attracting squid to 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 their safe return. "It's a Black Zone, so we'll have to cut in and out real quick."
He turned to Gwen with mixed feelings of interest and scepticism.
"A bit dangerous for a chiobu like you. You look too tender, going to get gobbled up."
"What if we run into Mermen outside the Barrier?" Gwen asked.
"Not much chance of that. If we kena, you guys take care of it, okay? We not exactly following maritime protocol where we go, so I take only trusted crew of kaki. Don't expect help from the Navy if we get sunk."
The party assured the Captain his customers would behave.
They boarded at the end of the pier, drawing curious eyes from the other ships' crews. 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 water," 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. 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, lah. The men don't 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 turned cool, crisp and salty.
"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 a very safe city. We have a three-layer barrier! The Batam Islands, the artificial islands of the strait, and the main station on Sentosa. As a result, our 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 artificial islands they passed soon transformed from commercial to industrial, then to lonesome installations build for military utility. Freight ships formed a line throughout the strait from shore to sea, creating a veritable bulwark of freight and cargo.
Their journey to Abang should take six hours.
On the fourth hour, the ship cleared the final safety buffer of the city.
"Everyone! Arnav! Keep an 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 save for a few curious incidents with local marine-life that came to inspect the fishing trawler. With tact, Gwen dissuaded the fauna with her Lightning Bolts.
"Whoa! Quasi-element! Nice!" Sukarno exclaimed happily.
"Thanks." Gwen flashed the Captain a toothy grin, making Sukarno smirk appreciatively. When the wind soon picked up, and the spray became too much. As one, 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, hor? Aiya, 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.
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 renowned sorceress Alesia de Botton who is still recovering from her injuries."
There was a full-colour page attached, showing Alesia in a wheelchair beside Gunther. Together with other prominent Magisters, the group carried a casket through St Andrews Cathedral, where presumably her Master's empty sarcophagus would be symbolically interred.
To her understanding, the symbolic ceremony was usually reserved only for noble members of the Mageocracy. To be inhumed and remembered in a place of public worship was a great honour, one that spoke loudly of the opinions the rulers of the Mageocracy held for Henry Kilroy.
"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 glory and beyond. 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. With shaking hands, she clutched the paper and felt an indescribable pang wringing her heart.
"You okay?" Jonas' voice was kind and reassuring.
"Yeah." Gwen looked ahead at the spray striking the panes of the cabin. "I am fine."
The Island fast approached.
The party changed into a long-sleeved skinsuit constructed from a breathable and pliable material in the final hour. The gunmetal bodysuit was of standard military issue, and so left an excessive 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 Brisbane Tower's quartermaster likewise had a low ankle line, which further ensured that a few centimetres of her flesh were left unprotected. Over her skinsuit, she wore a set of combat-meshes that hid her figure, its pouches loaded with Healing, 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.
"Wow, this is much better than what my division used to ration," Morye noted with pleasure, pulling at the stretchy fabric on his thigh. "The suit is Elementally attuned too? Very nice."
"What'd you used to wear?"
"Un-enchanted Cotton." Morye wore vest and pants over the skinsuit.
When her father put on pants, Gwen felt herself becoming conscious of the skin-tight suit. She had the mesh on top, but maybe she should also cover her bottom? That would impede her movement though, making her a prime target for branches, bushes and insects.
The Island came into view with about a 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, implying that its greenery hid caverns, hills, sheer drops, and even vertical cliffs.
"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 hor?"
In theory, three days was ample time. The Island was small enough to be circumvented on foot in a day on paper, and an hour if they flew.
Jonas materialised a Message Device the size of his arm— this far out from the Divination Tower nodes, they had to bring a portable device.
"We'll keep in contact as best as we can."
"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 the safety of the crew."
"Agreed." Jonas turned to Paul. "Let's get moving."
Paul drew a few Glyphs over the party. "Mass Water Walk."
While Paul worked his Transmutations buffs, 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.
For Gwen, water striding felt as though skipping to and fro from a series of trampolines. The Invocation 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, she was sure that Sukarno and the crew were blue with lark 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!"
Gwen stood to attention while the Major fixed her combat straps and double-checked the bandoleers. 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." The Transmuter and Cleric of the party gave the group a once-over.
"Enhance the Constitution."
"Protection from Poison"
Gwen was singled out for a few extra buffs from both Paul and Taj, who likewise buffed themselves.
The party then formed into marching order. Taj lead with his Earthen Mage armour moulded around him like a suit of half-plate. He was followed by Gwen, who was a staple DPS output with Elemental Lightning, especially when supplemented by her Void. The middle was held down by Morye, who could help Gwen with his Abjuration and hold his own. Their fourth and fifth man was Jonas, followed by Paul, who was responsible for leaving behind trail markings for orientating 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 Detection spell, after which she rested her eyes to flush the mana from her pupils.
"No helping it then. Just be vigilant." Taj took the first step, swinging a machete enchanted with Keenness into the flora.
As they penetrated the rainforest, Gwen spotted exotic fauna darting into cover as they moved through the dense tropical jungle. A curious pair of white-beaked birds of paradise, 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 normal 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 sorcery, keeping a true north heedless of illusion or enchantment.
Their progress slowed as the loose groves of palm became 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 foliage.
"Good grief, what's that smell!" Gwen uttered, unexpectedly assailed by a scent of horrid decay a few hours into their trek.
"Something rotten, 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 colossal ochre phallus towering up to three meters.
"It smells like… shit, actual shit." Taj marvelled. "Christ, 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 noticed that the corpse-flower seemed to be coalescing dark, shadowy mana specks at its base.
"I sense… Negative Energy at its core." Gwen felt on the verge of a personal eureka. "To think Negative Energy existed in nature!"
"Life and death is a balance, that is the way of the natural world." Jonas scanned the jungle with his eyes. "If I recall, this is a death-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 the next moment, a slithering, crawling stream of elemental earth, tinged with specks of negative mana, roved from the canopies down towards the flower's vivid display of dusky elements.
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 base.
"A victim?" 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. "Looks like a predator to me."
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 both flower and monster" 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 through haphazard brushes with boons and banes that a Mage grew, rapidly gaining unique abilities by testing oneself against the Wildlands' chaotic flora and fauna.
"Cali!" 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 faceless mien towards Gwen imploringly.
"Want a hand?"
Gwen suppressed as much of the Invocation 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 sucking sound akin to slurping ramen, Caliban drew the many-legged morsel into its lamprey's maw, effortlessly sliding its meter-long body into its bottomless gullet. Before its final demise, however, the centipede whipped around and bit Caliban's head. There was a crunch as the mandibles penetrated, followed by a soft empathic whimper from Gwen as her flesh throbbed.
The party winced as the last of the giant centipede's tendrils disappeared.
Taking a deep breath, 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.
"Bloody oath, my eyes are watering." Morye covered his nose and mouth. "I can taste it. Why, Gwen. Can't you train like a normal Mage?"
The other three men were silent, bearing the singular assault of the exquisite stench with voiceless fortitude.
"Control Wind!" Morye incanted, making the air displace about them, sending the stench up on high.
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 punt, Caliban punched through the base of the towering flower, collapsing the stalk.
"Caliban!" Gwen hissed, and the creature de-materialised, returning to its pocket dimension. Her complexion paled for a moment until she was positively ghostly— and then the moment passed, and she could once again sense her limbs.
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 orienteering?" Jonas asked their Translocation specialist.
"Beacons active, all sound. No tampering," Paul returned after a moment's concentration.
The day waned as the group's slow progress continued. A few more encounters with ambitious local fauna resulted in some hairy moments of thrilling combat, though Jonas' healing touch 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, at which point the towering Bayan trees began to make their presence known. With any luck, they should penetrate 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 an HDM crystal into the slot at its base.
She invoked the glyph of activation, at which point the 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. Disturbingly, 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 it's 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 skinsuit. The breathing fabric made her feel like she was wearing a film of warm water.
"Well, it only produces so much at once." he grinned as Gwen gushed at the thought of a cold shower under fresh water. "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 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 and was thus the proverbial mule for their party.
To her body, the cool "house" made a jarring difference. One minute, she was trekking through a Black Zone jungle, 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?
After a cold shower, she found Jonas humorously attired in an apron, serving bowls of aromatic Bolognese.
"Pepper?" Jonas enquired.
"Parmesan too, please." Gwen indulged herself.
At night, the military men's snoring was like rolling thunder, softly vibrating the windows of the bungalow. Gwen was glad that her doors were stout oak, but even so, it hardly suppressed the diesel generators running in unison.
An alarm sounded at what must be six or so in the morning, signifying the pocket dimension would soon end and its inhabitants ejected. A quick breakfast of cereal and ration ensued, and then 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."
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 saw an awful amount of carcasses lying on the path ahead.
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 dead birds' white bones languished, forming mounds of chitinous shells, 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!"
As though answering her behest, a soldier ant emerged head first, a three-inch-long length of obsidian mandibles slicing the air hungrily as it burst through the carrion. Another broke out a split second later, followed by a dozen, a hundred, possibly 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 barrier of positive energy wasn't as effective against physical attacks as plain-old Mage Armour, but it would have to do.
"Shit, how the hell are ants moving so fast?"
By now the ants were a flood of chittering hunger. When Gwen took another gander in-between the motion of her pumping legs, she noted that they were the same pin-headed critters they had previously seen, only now they were a roving tide of terror.
A handful of the ants fell onto Taj from above, landing on his Mage Armour. The group heard a sizzling sound as the stink of oxidising Earthen mana filled the air. To their woe, the needle on their heads sprayed a corrosive, milky liquid that wore away magical protection.
"Shiva's wrath!" Taj shook off the offending insect by dispelling and re-summoning the Mage Armour. "Can we go any faster?"
"Too much jungle!" 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.
"Healing Word!" Jonas restored his Translocation Mage a second later.
As for Gwen, her repertoire of spells flashed across her mind. To her chagrin, none of her Invoations had sufficient AOE potential to clear millions of minuscule insects at once, that was one of the fundamental fallacies of the Lightning Element.
A slithering serpent slipped from a dark tear in thin air.
"Drop and roll!"
Caliban dived into the tidal wave of ants and began to roll like a child amongst the sea spray. Now almost a meter and a half in length, it carved a path through the ants. Curiously, 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.
Just as Gwen felt her chest fill with hope, a writhing sphere 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.
"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 male voices. "Deploying Shield!"
Gritting her teeth, she 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, their bodies sizzled like white-hot metal quenched in bubbling 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 complexion. "Taj! How long?"
"Don't bother— I'll take care of this." In the chaos of their frenetic actions, her father's voice pierced the chaos.
"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 grew encrusted with crystalline strings of white-pink Elemental 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 rosy pinkness.
In the next moment, a sudden frost consumed 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, combat mesh, hair, and exposed skin were all covered with his innate element.
"Should have just done that first thing," Morye noted casually 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 our Healer," 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?" 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.
Morye tapped his nose. "I smell perfume."
There was a distinct sound of distorting wood, a sort of bizarre onomatopoeia, a 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.
An 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 passions flushing her cheeks. How should she engage the Dryad? Gwen wondered. Should she immediately mention Sufina and demand access to the Grot? Should they perhaps parley with it and negotiate the terms of their passage? She had given this moment days of speculation, but now that they had found themselves a three-meter tall goddess of exquisite wood with bolted-on breasts, Gwen discovered that she had lost all words.
"Hey there, lovely."
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 vitality and self-assurance, elegant and confident.
"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 as he bowed. Much to the party's consternation, he approached the Dryad without so much as manifesting a suit of Salt Armour. "But I could just as easily lose myself in your arms."
Gwen felt a glob of vomit forcing its way up her throat and into her mouth.
The Dryad seemed taken aback by Morye's candidness. "What can I do for you?"
"Ah, the things we could do would make the bush blush." Morye smoothly replied without breaking eye contact. "But for now, we would like to find a certain Mistress Sufina, though as for myself, I would be delighted to make your acquaintance while my companions did their duty."
Gwen wondered if Dryads could cringe because she was already sweltering with nausea.
"Oh, you're the Mistress' 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.
She couldn't help but bite her lips in frustration.
Men! What had she expected?