Morye held himself against a branch to brace his frail and exhausted lower body, now possessing the rigidity of wet spaghetti. He grinned with satisfaction, for though there was now a part of himself that was a bruised, doughy mess, the affair was a big tick off the bucket list. In his mind, and indistinct amount of time had passed in Dryads' Grot. Wiping the nectar from his lips, he touched his chin gingerly. There was the bristly spikiness of a five-o-clock shadow rubbing his palm like coarse sandpaper.
For how long had he ploughed the land to seed the crops? He hadn't felt this drained since meeting Helena back in their university days.
Here and there in the grove, flowery Dryads still milling about languishingly. A few of them drifted Morye's way, but even the mighty Morye felt too sluggish to keep on trucking after such a marathon. Though he looked hale, Morye knew he was running on empty, riding on fumes, squeezed out like a desiccated cucumber.
"Where's everyone?" he asked a red-head with lovely eyes and a vacant expression.
"Gone!" the nymph-girl lamented, her eyes predatorily scanning over Morye's lower body. "Play?"
"Er… not right now. Where did my party go?"
"They went that way. You sure?"
More cursed under his breath. The others must have abandoned him. The nerve! He would now have to catch up and hope that the boat remained anchored when he arrived.
"Enhance Constitution! Enhance Agility! Expeditious Retreat!" He activated some self-buffs and fled where the Dryad had indicated. It was going to be an uneasy trek with little light, for the sun looked about as exhausted as he was back in the Grot.
Behind him, the woods parted.
"Where art thou going?!" a shrill, feminine voice called out, not too dissimilar from the milk-curdling pitch a Helena always effected. A verdurous dryad, glossy with effort and gloriously alluring, crashed into the clearing, heaving voluptuously. "There's life in you yet, dearie!"
Suddenly, the fatigue of his aching muscles no longer mattered.
Like a shot stag drunk on adrenaline, Morye bolted.
Deep within the Banyan Grot, Sufina returned to her heart tree, where she had grown an elaborate sarcophagus for her former companion. She watched stoically as the roots wove themselves into place, crossing over and melding into a single block of stout ironwood that grew around Henry's body.
"O Captain, My Captain..." Sufina allowed her voice to fill the general air, hearing its tremor reverberate across the uncertain space of her Grot.
Not so long ago, the place had been full of human voices.
There was first Gunther, debating loudly with Henry and seeking advice. There was Alesia, pretending to be young and coy even though she was thirty years old, trying to get out of trouble. Then came Gwen, forever eager for knowledge and the next spell, speaking in that strange way of hers and asking questions that came out of the blue.
Now— there was nothing; there would be no visitors for the foreseeable future. For the first time in a long time, she would be alone. Alone in the deep dark, with nothing but a cadaver-memento.
Slowly, with great care, she raised Henry's body onto a wooden dais.
There was an unobtrusive "tink" as something fell onto the floor.
Sufina willed a tendril to retrieve the object for closer inspection.
It was a shimmering scale about a thumbnail in size, scintillating with a mid-shower rainbow's vibrant hues. Sufina had seen it before; it belonged to the girl, and through it, the girl-Mage had channelled the primordial mana of creation itself.
It was spent, though a seed of life remained, awaiting revitalisation.
Instinctively, Sufina placed the scale upon her left breast, allowing the woodgrain dermis there to open and swallow the relic, sending it to rest beside her creature core. As her life force worked to nourish the object, she could feel a slight tingle, informing her that her vital energies had begun cultivating its severed connection.
It was a strange, indescribable feeling, one that the Dryad no longer could adequately process— but the sentiment lingered, and somewhere within her anima, she recognised the heartwarming sensation.
It was the feeling, of no longer being alone.
Paul contacted Sukarno before they broke free from the tree-line.
The Captain answered the Message happily, ecstatic that the party were returning so soon. Unlike the landing party, he had little means to fend away curious creatures that may lurk in the shallow bay. After all, these islands were said to be inhabited by man-eating wood Nymphs. He knew for sure that should any fishermen be lured by the bathing nymphs onto the island would never be seen again.
When the party broke out from the tree line, Sukarno was further surprised to see that it had grown. Now they were joined by a small blonde girl, who looked refreshingly adorable, a giant Polynesian with facial tattoos, and a Chinese girl with an outrageous figure.
For a moment Sukarno had to wonder if the party had kidnapped some young Nymphs from the island. He had heard that the upper echelons' fabulously wealthy men and women had exotic tastes. No matter how exquisite or vivacious Human girls could be, those with money always turned to stranger thrills.
When the returning party came closer to the boat, it became evident that the returnees were sorceresses.
"Hoi! I am happy to see that you are all safe!"
Sukarno did a quick headcount as the Mage known as Paul cast Water Walk on the party and escorted them across the shallows towards the boat.
Gwen, their "Leader", embarked first, hoisting herself dextrously over the gunwale. "Good evening, Captain. I am afraid we have a few extra passengers."
"That no problem. Everybody safe; that's what's important." His eyes scanned the party.
"Huh, where is your father? He okay?"
"I am sure he's fine." Gwen looked behind her, where the jungle was growing back with visible progress. "When can we go?"
"You want to leave now? Or we wait for him?"
"Is there a problem with travelling at night?"
The girl measured her fingers against the setting sun. As taught by Surkano, she deduced that they had two more hours of daylight, then one more in the blue-hour before the sun sunk into the sea.
"Given him until we change, after that, we start the engines. If Morye doesn't show, it means he's chosen to live life as a seed-stud with the Dryads."
"O that sounds like an enviable way to die lah," Sukarno chuckled, his suggesting grin split ear to ear. "Okay, we wait a bit more."
Sukarno envisioned the island populated with little Morye-saplings and couldn't help but laugh. For the girl, however, the revelation was of such exquisite revulsion that she gagged.
Though their return trek had been uneventful, it wasn't a walk in the park. As Gwen's party crashed through the regrown woods, they became soaked with dirt, pollen and sap while bushwacking through the hot, humid, and physically fatiguing jungle.
Yue and Elvia were doubly exhausted by the five-hour march, their uniforms and school-boots hardly suited to trekking through the primordial forest. When Elvia sunk into knee-deep loam for the fifth time and became fast-stuck, Whetu decided to carry her on his back, a task that Gwen envied.
Their party invited insects as well, such as a leech the size of Elvia's arm that had sent Elvia screaming for cover, only to run into more blood-sucking worms as large as her leg. Other strange fauna such as a butterfly blue as eyes made a bee-line straight for Elvia to coddle Kiki with its meter-long pin-needle proboscis.
In hindsight, now that Gwen thought about it. Elvia's Positive Energy aura made her a walking insect lure.
Thankfully, Surkano's ship had a shower.
Subtlely, Gwen informed the others of her intention for a hearty cleanse, then they set to work. Feeling a little guilty for always having first dibs, she asked the men if they wanted to wash first, passing over her Decanter of Endless Water. To her disappointment, Whetu took her up on her insincere offer.
As they waited, Gwen gathered Elvia and Yue at the trawler's aft, where the trio faced the blue yonder and related the tale of what had happened between Debora, Faceless, and herself.
"Fuck me!" Yue articulately conveyed her feelings of shock and dismay. "A god damn shapeshifter tried to put the moves on you? While we were at your Grandpa's?"
"Oh Gwennie, I am so sorry," Elvia cuddled her, though not too intimately as they were all filthy.
"It's okay, Evee. I survived. It's over, at least for now," Gwen sighed with relief. "Elizabeth is somewhere. Master is gone. Gunther has taken over the Tower in Sydney. The city is rebuilding. I think we can all lay low for a while and focus on this refugee business."
"You reckon the Serpent ate Sobel?" Elvia asked.
Gwen shook her head.
"She lost all that life force she'd been collecting though, stolen from two million people, not including the Mermen, so I'd say she's going to be out of action for a while. That is unless her Void magic completely differs from mine."
"What's the refugee thing you're talking about?" Yue asked, curious as to what happens when a city is made inhospitable.
"According to Richard, we'll get assigned to tier 1 or tier 2 cities, depending on our talents." Gwen chewed her lower lip uneasily. She wasn't sure either. Could it mean that Yue, Elvia, and herself wouldn't be able to stay together? Then again, she could appeal to Gunther or the Tower to intervene. It was good having friends in high places.
The broader issue wasn't Yue or Evia, but their families. Gwen doubted the Tower would be so generous as to cater for two entire households, much less provide for Yue's mother, who was an NoM. Elvia's family likewise, probably had their plans. Maybe they could take this opportunity to return to Europe, a place their patriarch had dreamed of returning since losing their land and migrating to Australia. As for Whetu, he was probably returning home to his Master in Auckland.
"Hmm." Yue tapped her fingers on the warm metal planking. "I think I'll stay with Alesia. How badly did you say she was wounded?"
"Bad, though she's recovering just fine," Gwen assured her friend. "The Medical Mages say she should be back to normal after a year or so. It's more so her sundered Astral-body that needs time. It was badly damaged when Alesia took on her Djinn form. Physically, she's probably going to be fine in a few weeks."
"That's good to hear." Yue breathed out. "I'd have to tell Mum and Dad, although I think that works out. Dad's just a regular Joe, and Mum's an NoM so I doubt they'd even send us away. There'd be no profit in it. What city would want a nobody and an NoM?"
"Let's hope so," Gwen replied. If Yue's family could stay in Australia, she could probably pull some favours and have them well looked after. If nothing else, they can remain with Surya and be safe while the city recovered.
"I don't want to go to Europe," Elvia said suddenly, likely realising that the chance that her family would take up the opportunity was high. To Gwen's knowledge, a family the tier of the Lindholms would be welcome anywhere, at least as refugees. Her family would have to scrape by and bury their heads in work for a few years— but after a decade or so, they could re-attain the same life they had in Australia— only in a tier 1 city, mayhap even in ancestral Austria.
"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," Gwen said confidently, squeezing Elvia's reddening cheeks. "At the very worst, you can stick with me. We'll take rooms in the Tower and us three can start a cabal. We'll be the three Sorceresses of Sydney!"
"You don't think they'll send you somewhere?" Yue questioned.
"I'll stick with Gunther and Alesia, I think." Gwen nodded to assuage Yue's paranoia. Just as the words left her lips though, Gwen felt the skin-tingling, hair-raising premonition of Divination, indicating something unpleasant was about to happen.
"On it, what do you sense?"
Gwen scanned their surroundings, checking for danger.
The tree-line on the opposite shore burst out in an explosion of cascading salt.
Morye came springing out at full pelt, a white blur stomping across the beach. Behind him, a giantess, emerald with lascivious beauty, came striding forth in all her nubile glory like a primal fertility goddess.
"Morye, where art thou going?" the Dryad reached out, tendrils whipping across the air.
"Salt Shard!" Morye spun and let loose a hail of jagged shards, cutting her ribbons to shreds. The salt Mage ran onto the water without stopping, his footfalls turning the seawater into chunks of bobbing crystals. Using these as a platform, he ran straight across the shallows toward them.
The Dyad stopped at the edge of the shallows., for the island was the extent of her domain.
Meanwhile, the crew was in an uproar, taking pictures and pointing wildly, marvelling at the enormity of the Dryad's voluptuous display. The sunset, the seawater, the salt and the Dryad— there would be tall tales to tell at the bar for sure.
Morye landed onto the trawler's foredeck with a flourish, the Mage Armour cascading from his body to reveal tattered attire that looked as though it had been ravaged.
"O God, that smarts!" he hissed as the salt worked their way into his wounds. Morye's back looked as though pulled through a sandpaper wringer. "Jonas, give me a Healing Word! I think she took some of my flesh as souvenirs. Arrgh! Thsssss!"
As Elvia had been closest to Morye, the kind healer opened up with a Cure Wounds. Gwen could see that her friend's spell was more potent than before now that the plant-Sprite's Positive Energy supplemented her casting. With Elvia's tender touch of restoration in place, Morye's skin began to heal rapidly. Gwen's father calmed his nerves and turned to look upon the angelic little nurse with eyes full of benevolent thankfulness, giving her a glinting grin of confidence.
"I could be wounded a thousand times over if someone like you there for me at home," He said to Elvia with solemn eyes, the mind-numbing pain of the last few seconds evaporating from his mind like the wounds on his body. "Dearest, may I have your name?"
A bolt of eldritch energy, darker than black, zinged past Morye's face with a smell of rot and decay, shaving off a millimetre of skin from his cheek. It all happened so fast that his Mage Shield sprung up a split-second too late. When the blood began to ooze, Morye realised that he could no longer feel that particular inch of his face.
"Don't," Gwen said to her father sternly, like a master admonishing a nasty dog. "Just. No."
Elvia stuck out her tongue and healed Morye's facial wound.
Morye appeared alternatively furious and guilty at once; he wanted to admonish Gwen for daring to endanger him with a void spell. By now, he had to have realised that this lovely young thing must be one of his daughter's dear friends— the very object of their rescue. Gwen herself almost immediately regretted the impulsive assault, though her face remained highly indignant.
"Don't do Void," Morye reproached Gwen sternly, his eyes darting away to avert her critical gaze. "It's not good for your health."
Gwen's hazel orbs traversed from her bloody father to Elvia, whose face was scarlet from cheek to cheek, to the dryad sex-goddess who was still loudly pining for Morye, jumping up and down to entice his return.
"Wow, Mr Song, you are a piece of work," Yue commented.
"Watch your mouth, Ms Bai, lest I tell your father," Morye snubbed her back, then added a few more empty admonishments. "Or I tell your mother."
Yue's eyes narrowed dangerously; the air grew hotter.
Gwen took both Yue and Elvia by the arm and pulled them down toward the lower deck. Maybe it was best to keep these two upstarts away from one another. If they kept at it, the boat would probably never make it back to Singapore.
Above, Sukarno gave the order to set sail; the mana engine thrummed to life, and the ship began to move.
Once Whetu returned to the upper deck, it was the girls' turn to shower. As close as their friendship professed to be, they weren't close enough to share a communal shower in a cramped cubical. Gwen went first, stripping off her skin suit and packing away her stinking gear.
When the girls emerged finally from the cabin with their new summer attires, the men's eyes lit up.
"I want a daughter," Paul said seriously to his friends. "I think I am beginning to understand the happiness of being a father."
Jonas nodded but knew that his dream was likely going to be unrequited. He had told himself that he should give up on Alesia many times, but every time he closed his eyes, she was there, burning his resolve to cinders.
The girls did not mind the men's benevolent attention, smiling, laughing and joking as the ship broke through the water with the cool, briny breeze of the sea washing away the forest's mildew.
The trawler made it about thirty minutes away from the island when a sudden sea-sprout erupted from the otherwise calm ocean, showering the unsuspecting crew with fishy water. The boat skidded to a halt with a violent lurch, dipping a little when a massive Merman leapt onboard with a scowl.
The bedraggled crew looked upon the Merman incredulously. They were outside the Shield Barrier, that was true, and they were only a small-sized ship, but they had a full complement of Mages! The sheer force their small vessel possessed could Purge an island, much less deal with a Merman raid.
Expecting the Mages would resolve the matter, Surkano's crew turned to look at Gwen and her friends, now drenched from head to toe and bedraggled with bits of seaweed. Only a moment prior, the girls had been inspirited with visions of Singapore and branded goods in the craft market— the next moment they had arrived at a fish stall.
"Hurr! Hur!" The Merman brandished a coral trident. The bestiary said that though magical creatures could naturally sense mana, only those with high cunning and intelligence levels could truly hone their detection skills. This specimen that looked as though someone had migrated a barracuda onto a bipedal body was likely not the intelligent subtype.
Three Senior Combat-Mages, one Salt Magus, four junior Mages, and Captain Sukarno, turned to face the haughty Merman with sympathetic grins.
The creatures' eyes lit up when it saw Gwen and the girls, for Mermen liked their flesh tender and youthful. Its bulbous eyes moved over the group as its lips curled to reveal rows of dagger-like teeth.
"Hur hur!" It called out.
Two more Mermen just like it emerged from the sea and leapt onto the decking with wet slaps from their finned feet. It turned to regard Gwen with as arrogant an expression as "seafood" could muster.
"How do you usually deal with this?" Jonas asked Sukarno.
"I chase them off lah, or give them some crystals, and they leave us alone." The Captain cut the feed to the mana engine. "Maybe it thinks we're out fishing?"
Gwen brushed her dark hair away from her face, revealing glowing, electric eyes that glowed in the dusk of day. Beside her, Yue was already steaming, the seawater evaporating from her body. Whetu stepped forward, but Jonas halted the punamu Abjurer. The girls needed to blow off steam, and one should never refuse martyred sashimi.
"Ariel!" Gwen called out, her mind buzzing with possibilities. "Keep it still. I need to test something."
A bolt of lightning that transformed into a massive mongoose tackled the Merman before it could react. From its teeth and claws, jolts of paralysing lightning penetrated the creature's slimy scales and nailed it to the floor, sending electrical sparks skittering over the deck.
The other two Mermen roared in defiance, hopping mad that instead of a gift in fish or crystals, these sailors would dare attack them.
Yue, who'd been steaming with pent-up fury since a moment ago, exploded with gouts of orange-red flames that flash-dried her maxidress.
"Scorching Rays!" With a practised hand, Yue manifested four intense beams of flame in an instant. A burst of pink steam-exploded over the iron decking as one Merman exploded into gibs of roasted flesh. The other had time to scream before it sizzled.
Meanwhile, Ariel had the first Merman pinned down in its jaws and was slowing crushing the fish by clamping its sinuous neck.
"Hur? Hur! Hur?" The fish huffed distressingly. Likely, imminent death wasn't what it had expected. From the looks of its fishy expression, it seemed to be suggesting that the meeting was an honest mistake and that it had only intended to buy some fish from the lovely humans.
Gwen turned to Morye.
"How close do I need to get?"
Gwen clicked her tongue and stepped within melee distance of the Merman. From up on high, she could see its beady eyes rolling in its sockets, begging for mercy. The Void sorceress wrinkled her nose and banished her sympathy.
The thing's spinal fluid spray into Ariel's mouth. Her mongoose whined. Fish wasn't its favourite— it preferred snakes. Beside the grimacing mongoose, Gwen had her Detect magic activated, carefully observing the Merman. She noted that its core ceased to be a dense cluster of Elemental Water at the moment of its death. Instead, the mana drained away into the general atmosphere. With her limited Divination, she couldn't sense the "Essence", but she could see a few minute motes of elemental water drifting her way. Beneath her soaked dress, her Kirin Amulet grew warm for the span of two breaths; then it was once again dormant.
"Is it dead?" Elvia asked, still a safe distance away.
Gwen extended a hand toward the creature and materialised a bowie knife. She inexpertly butchered the body to the chagrin of her spectators, digging and hacking away until she found her expectant prize.
"Woa, a Core!" Captain Sukarno triumphantly exalted when Gwen lifted the bloody thing, smeared with the clear slime of fishy entrails, into the open air.
Gwen herself grew silent and contemplative, her mind suddenly full of purpose. Her father had been right; the killing of creatures at close range allowed for the influence of the Kirin amulet to take effect. If such was the case, she could arguably be the most effective Core-harvesting adventurer in Oceania.
"What's the damage for the core?" Gwen felt her mood lighten as she examined the Creature Core.
"Oh, Soldier level Core? Fifty LDMs to a single HDM? I know a guy who will buy for a good price," Sukarno happily replied. "You very lucky, Miss Song. Very lucky."
The creature core passed from hand to hand, sans Morye, with each of the Mages marvelling at Gwen's good fortune.
"Dinner's on me tonight!" Gwen announced. "Seafood! To the city! To Singapore! Tonight, it's my shout!"
It took a further six hours to return to Singapore, where Jurong Port would open come morning.
The team spent the night anchored in the safety of the harbour, the thrum of Singapore's many Shielding Stations upon their back, watching the stars and catching up on old times, enjoying the soothing atmosphere of the open sea before it heated up, transformed by the detestable, humid haze.
When the day broke, the company sailed into Jurong Port without further incident, safely docking where they had left two days ago. To avoid trouble with the city's infamously hardcore military Mages, Gwen and friends had to take Elvia, Yue and Whetu to be registered.
When the Customs Officials at the Jurong began to ask uncomfortable questions, Jonas stepped in. He presented himself as an officer of the Frontier Military of Sydney and a senior member of the Tower's Recon unit. Paul and Taj likewise presented their credentials, suggesting that the Singapore Tower would verify these girls' identities through Long-Ranged Messages.
Thankfully, Yue, Whetu and Elvia had kept their student cards on them, and with another hour wasted going back and forth on bureaucracy, they finally receive temporary passes for Yue and Elvia.
Captain Sukarno stayed with them a while to ensure that everything was alright before leaving with his extra twelve HDMs, shaking the men's hands happily and giving Gwen and friends a brief benediction with both hands in prayer. To save them time, he even bought Gwen's Merman Core, which he'd stated that he would keep as a souvenir from their exciting little adventure together.
Just as they were about to leave the Jurong Customs area, one of the officers stopped them to confirm if they were leaving Singapore soon.
"We'll be leaving as early as tomorrow, officer." Gwen flashed a smile at the man. "There's nothing to worry. We're just going to head to one of your famous seafood restaurants, maybe book a dock-side motel, then we'll be out of your hair, I promise."
"That's no problem," replied the middle-aged Senior Sergeant. "I can recommend some restaurants, all the seafood goes through Customs as well, as you know."
The two made jovial banter as Gwen took down the address for a 'recommended' place to eat Seafood without suffering the tourist tax.
"Staying in the city is very expensive," he continued. "We have hostels for temporary travellers like yourself that is very cheap. If you want, I can get you a card."
"Ah, that would be wonderful.' Gwen leaned against the counter. "We're poor as it is, lah!"
"Ha!" The Sergeant laughed. "Okay! I get you the address, wait here."
True to his word, the officer returned with a business card.
"Follow the direction; it's very close to here. Very convenient. Tell the office I send you. My name is Liu. Enjoy your stay in Singapore! I hope you like Chilli Crab!"
As the group left the Customs area, they drew curious looks from all over. They could only hope that they resembled a group of father-daughter travellers, seeing as they were three teenage girls and five middle-aged military men.
Outside, the day struck high-noon.
"Well, where to?" the men inquired as they had no particular plans for the city.
"We might go shopping - after we send some Messages from the Post Office," Gwen declared, flashing her ring and its cargo of crystals. "Somehow I don't think shopping is going to be feasible in Sydney anymore."
The Messages would be for Gunther, Alesia, as well as Elvia and Yue's parents. She had to contact her grandfather too to tell Surya to look after Yue's mother and father.
"Want us to escort you?" Jonas asked; though the very thought of following the girls through the shopping district likely turned the soldier's stomach. The military men were perfectly willing to follow the girls into an uninhabitable jungle, but to follow the girls into clothing stores was too much. "Maybe take Whetu?"
"How safe do you suppose the city is?" Gwen asked.
"The safest, so long as you stick to the CBD and the Bay Sands area," Jonas replied.
"Then we'll be fine. Meet up at the restaurant?"
"Sure, I'll go confirm our manifest. We'll see you guys soon."
"If you don't mind, I'll hang with the blokes," Whetu insisted. "Not one for window shopping meself, nuffin fits."
"You look good in a tight shirt," Yue remarked.
Whetu laughed nervously. "Sorry, no shopping" He added thoughtfully.
"I'll see you guys tomorrow at the terminal then," Morye said suddenly, drawn their eyes.
"Where are you going?" Gwen asked reflexively.
"Do you want to know?" Morye grinned at his daughter knowingly.
"Erh… no," Gwen confessed. "Don't commit a crime or anything. Singapore is a lawful city."
"I'll be fine. I've been here before. Merely curious as to how the city has changed." Morye dismissed her warning with a wave of his hand.
With their plans for the afternoon settled, the members went their separate ways. Gwen turned excitedly to her friends and found them looking apprehensive and unsure.
"Gwen, are we going to be okay?" Elvia asked. "We don't know anything about the city!"
"Yeah." Yue looked strangely nervous as well. Unlike her experienced self, both of the girls had never travelled alone. "How do we know what to catch and where to go?"
"Hee." Gwen turned to her friends. "Just you watch, I know the perfect place."
Half an hour and two LDMs later, they were staring at an open bay filled with constructions still in progress.
"What is this place?" Yue asked sceptically. "What are we doing here?"
"Gwen." Elvia shivered at the sight of gargantuan construction Golems pounding away. "I am starving. Where are we? Where are all the shops?"
Her destination was Marina South.
The year was 2003.
Gwen suddenly recalled that the Marina Bay Sand compound opened in 2010. "OH MY GOD." She facepalmed. "I am an idiot."
Their taxi was thankfully fifty meters away and making a U-turn.
"Taxi!" Gwen called out, praying that she wasn't wrong a second time. "To Clarke Quay!!"