As an old witch in a young girl's body, Gwen saw the Abjurer's avarice a mile away.
There was an old aphorism in her alter-world. When profit exceeds the single-digit percentage in a bull market, traders are willing to take inordinate risks. When the advantage exceeds double-digit figures, individuals are willing to flout the law. When the margin of profit surpasses even that, financiers will voluntarily risk the market economy and others' lives.
Unsurprisingly, her Divination Sigil pinged her spine, affirming the immediate danger of her future, unpleasant encounter. Forcing herself to calm, she weighed the boons and banes of resistance.
If she relented, she could arguably score another Creature Core. There was, after all, another one of the creatures, if not more. Secondly, she would also have to fight five Mages at once, which placed her at an extreme disadvantage. Thirdly, her Void spells were too costly for AOEs, and her Lightning did not fare well against Earthen Mages. She also had no idea who they were or what family connections her foes possessed. Even if she "won" by crushing them in a pyrrhic victory, she may lose out in other ways.
Conversely, if she "won", her reward for victory was a single Creature Core.
Gwen made her choice.
She would pay them back ten-fold in the future— if and when another opportunity presented itself. Revenge, as they say, was a dish best served cold.
Now considered and cool-headed, she put up her hands and walked backwards, commanding Caliban to likewise back off, dropping the frog-Core at its feet.
The Abjurer proceeded until he was within the range, then retrieved it with a Mage Hand.
"Good girl." He smiled at her, eyeing her appreciatively.
Gwen read his following thoughts and felt no desire to linger.
She would find her team first, and then these fucks would know her wrath. She wasn't sure whether Hengsha's Adjudicators would intervene, but she'd be damned if she let them leave the Dungeon in one piece.
Caliban picked her up with a swift sweep of its forelegs; then they were away.
"Hey!" Hu hollered behind her.
Gwen silently incanted her favourite disruption spell, then fled as fast as Caliban's legs could carry her.
"Smart girl..." Hu lifted the crystal shard she had left behind with another Mage Hand. "Now, what is this—"
Strangely, where Gwen had expected at least a token pursuit, there was none.
She moved in the opposite direction, no longer caring for the splashing of mud as Caliban roved across the landscape, devouring whatever unfortunate creature that crossed its path.
The occasional Magical Beast provided a moderate challenge, though she managed by pairing Caliban's attacks with Dark Tentacles and the occasional Lightning Bolt. The Dungeons' lower-tier monsters became easy prey for her Void fiend between the snare and the paralysis.
Though Gwen was no zoologist, she noted that two predominant colours, scarlet and ultramarine, seemed to afflict the Magical Creatures of this region. Furthermore, it appeared that the fauna's offensive mainstay was poison, which would explain the vivid hues. Thankfully, Caliban, who wasn't even in possession of organs, cared little for the toxic protein. Nonetheless, looking at the fetid salt-swamp and its grey-expanse, Gwen couldn't help but wonder why the creatures were all so similar. Whatever happened to coastal biodiversity?
By dusk, there was a noticeable increase in the activity of the alien amphibians. When at last Caliban finished a round of combat but failed to replenish the vitality it had spent, she acknowledged that she had better find a place to put herself up. Despite being vitalised by Caliban's harvest of flesh, her mana pool wasn't nearly as sustainable.
The fact that she had not seen anyone even as final hours of daylight fell furthermore stimulated her growing anxiety, causing her to jump at every shadow. Didn't Petra say they should be close? Surely she had travelled at least eight or ten kilometres at this stage. Just how unlucky was she?
She tried her Message device out of curiosity, but it was dead beyond a limited distance without a Divination Tower. Perhaps one day, when she had mastered the School of Divination, she could offer herself as the team's communications relay. Until then, she was silent and cut off.
In the distance, Gwen spotted yet another peat-covered isle held together by a profusion of gangly mangroves. Caliban made swift progress as it waded up to its waist toward the island, dragging itself onto its banks, a slimy, crimson catfish arrested in its maw.
Arriving at its centre, Gwen sent Caliban to scout the perimeter while she summoned Ariel to keep watch. The little marten jealously eyed her spider-thing as it stalked off, then dashed about here and there mischievously.
Next, she materialised the Portable Habitat and slotted an HDM into its "battery" compartment. With a thrum, the device initiated. When Gwen deposited the instrument a few feet distance away, a portal appeared atop the model of the tiny bungalow.
Gwen then channelled a good portion of her Lightning charged mana and began to manifest a Faithful Hound, an invisible guardian that would keep watch while she rested within the portal.
"Um… excuse me, Miss Song?"
Ariel zipped toward the source of the uninvited presence, becoming a white streak of furry thunderbolt ready to visit terrible, paralytic reckoning.
Gwen recognised the voice.
"Fei?" Her brow furrowed.
Fei emerged from the Camouflage illusion, his clothes worse for wear for spending hours pursuing Gwen.
"I am sorry to disturb you," the effeminate-faced young man begged. "Do you think… I could borrow a bit of your Habitat's space?"
Fei looked like he'd been through hell and high water, the very picture of pity. In the distance, Caliban came skittering, a scarecrow spider stalking on obsidian swords.
"PLEASE DON'T EAT ME!" Fei bowed deeply, offering the equivalent of a dog showing its belly. "And please help me!"
Gwen felt her irritation turn to compassion as the young man shivered in the dying light of dusk. Not far from him, Caliban's faceless head glinted with the sickly glow of the declining sun.
Despite her earlier encounter, she felt sorry for the boy.
"It's fine, just don't do it again." She gave the poor Acolyte a reassuring sigh, her eyes scanning the dishevelled young Mage from head to toe. The young man was pungently odious after his marshland adventure.
She thought of the events of this morning, at which point a welcoming realisation came to mind.
"Fei..." Gwen inquired sweetly, looking at the young man in a new light. "Did you distract those assholes from earlier? Was that why they didn't chase me?"
Fei's face flushed, stammering that he thought it best if they didn't follow her and that he'd left an illusion of her escaping in the opposite direction. At that moment, the quiet, unassuming young man reminded her a little of Percy.
"Alright." Gwen withheld an urge to hug the smelly man. "Do you know how to cook?"
Fei Lin rarely cooked, but as a non-inheriting disciple without a cadre of NoM servants, he knew how to make a tasty meal from simple ingredients.
When Gwen produced bottled sauces, pasta, frozen mince, bacon, mushroom and bread, he felt hurt by the imbalance of resources.
Just how spacious was this girl's Storage Ring?!
"Carbonara with mushroom and chicken," she commanded him.
Thankfully, the packet instructions were in Chinese. As the pasta boiled, Gwen queried Fei in regards to her earlier dilemma.
"So, not engaging those guys was the right choice?"
"Undoubtedly so," Fei replied, his hands carefully slicing and dicing. "I don't know who the others are, but the Abjurer is the inheriting son of the Clan of Xiao, a dynastic family. They're a millennia-old clan that's survived the transition of epochs and revolutions. Very much old money and old magic. If you had killed or maimed one of these guys, I honestly don't know what would have happened."
"What about the Adjudicators? Wouldn't they cut in?"
"Well, unless you intend to kidnap them or torture them, the modus of the Adjudicators are to 'not' intervene. Usually, for a Dungeon of this size, there'd be a dozen of them at most. Localised conflicts like duels and robbery are expectant encounters in a Dungeon. If you can look at it another way, this is all training for us. If someone dies, their job is to verify the conditions surrounding an Acolyte's death, not to save the individual."
"That's... brutal." Gwen frowned. Magister Paris had seemed so friendly in marketing the Dungeon as a grand adventure.
"This is my second Dungeon dive," Fei said. "During my first, I saw an entire team get swallowed up by a worm creature that they had foolishly challenged. When the Adjudicators put it down and opened up its stomach..."
"Pasta's boiling..." Gwen stopped him right there.
Fei shook the vision from his head. "One guy survived. That's the Abjurer you almost fought."
"How do the Lins compare to, say, the Xiao?" Gwen pivoted the topic, having no desire to know about half-digested teenagers.
"Shouldn't you know?" Fei added the packet sauce. "Our families know each other. The Songs and the Lins are all new Houses that emerged after the Revolution in the 40s, coming to prominence in the decades since the CCP took power. The Clans or 'Clanners' see us as upstarts."
"What about Mina's family, the Wangs?" Gwen inquired.
Fei regarded her strangely.
"The Wang family is a mercantile family. No notable bloodlines, but they've been trading with tier 1 and Frontier cities for generations. I'd say if you were to put the wealthiest individuals in Shanghai into a list, a double-digit ranking for the Clan of Wang wouldn't be out of the question."
So Mina is humbler than she put on, Gwen considered this new information, Tao as well— so they're the kids of a billionaire?
When they sat down to share the meal, Fei couldn't help but satiate his curiosity with a few questions of his own.
"Are you really from a Frontier City?" Fei had found that particular knowledge the most surprising of all. "With your talent, shouldn't you be the heiress of some archaic household? Also, what kind of Acolyte casually carries a Portable Habitat? This thing costs a single HDM per activation, half the weekly wage of a low-level Fabricator Mage! This particular model must be worth hundreds or thousands of HDMs!"
While Fei ranted, Gwen engaged the creamy pasta with the voracity of Caliban's 'Onslaught'.
After dinner, Fei offered to do the washing up and the cleaning.
After that, Gwen showered, dressed, then rested well, leaving a wide-eyed Fei sleeping in the room opposite, the young man's mind a jumble of repressed desires and outlandish what-ifs.
They set out at first light after Fei had made breakfast.
Gwen sauntered forward while her temporary companion followed with Water Walking, keeping a safe distance from Caliban.
"Shaa!" Caliban stopped abruptly after an hour's travel.
Frustrated with the lack of progress yesterday, Gwen was determined to find her missing companions.
By mid-morning, a sizeable peat-bog plateau, more significant than any of the ones they'd seen before, loomed through the foggy swamp-gas. Surrounded by thickly built mangroves, its midst sprouted a tree that towered into the smoggy fog. From afar, the outcrop looked just like the one where they'd encountered the red frog-men, but on a much larger scale.
There was the sound of combat coming from within the emerald thicket.
With a "Giddy-up!" Master, spider, and lackey rushed through rows of the stunted mangroves until they reached the battlefield. Amid this particular clearing was the largest Banyan-like tree yet, its size so grand as to disappear into the low clouds. Underneath its bowers, there laid a field of corpses both skeletal and in the process of decay. Above, long tendrils hung from the branches, digging into the flesh of the dead, rooted upon the bones.
Presently, several Mages were engaged in a deadly contest with blue frog-men almost twice the size of the red ones Gwen had seen prior.
These were far more impressive than their crimson cousins; their hides consisting of interlocking plates of thick skin that resembled mail. Rather than fingers tipped with claws, their massive barrel sized fists had twin protrusions which they wore like bladed gauntlets. To Gwen, the beasts resembled battling toads from the Nintendo game of the same name.
Opposite the creatures and fighting desperately were four Mages, or more accurately— a singular Mage and three hangers-on. One of the combatants writhed on the floor, holding a gash in her gut. Another, a sorceress, sobbed paralytically over the first. Yet another one, a young man, was meditating desperately, trying to recover enough mana to continue the fight.
"That's Yuan! one of my teammates!" Fei announced with agitation and worry. His eyes pleaded with her desperately. "Gwen, can we help them?"
It wasn't as if Gwen could say no. The final Mage that held the defence line was none other than her prideful cousin, Petra of Moscow.
At once, her cousin spotted her across the clearing.
"Gwen! Standby!" Petra's Message bloomed next to her ear. "I can hold them down for a while yet! Is there a healer nearby?"
There were three of the blue bastards wailing away on her crystalline Shield. With one hand, Petra held a Spell Cube, maintaining the semi-dome barrier with a look of intense concentration.
"Fei," Gwen commanded the Illusionist. "That's your cue. See what you can do."
Fei nodded and threw his hands into the air, Tapping into his Sigils, the young Mage gestured toward the sky.
A Sigil escaped the mangroves and burst into a flare ten meters wide, glowing with the intensity of a small sun.
"I'll rally the help!" Fei announced. "What about you?"
"I got to help Petra," Gwen answered, her eyes taking on a blue glow as Lightning charged mana circulated her conduits. "It's going to be dangerous, and I won't be able to protect you. Go!"
Fei appeared to hesitate but then made haste with Expeditious Retreat.
"Ariel!" Gwen materialised her marten. It instantly transformed into a mid-sized Mongoose bristling with electricity. "Take the one on the right."
"Caliban!" Gwen fed her Familiar a nauseating chunk of vitality, watching its purple flesh pulse and its carapace bristle as it accelerated. "Take the one on the left!"
Further observing the battle's outlook, Gwen bit her lips and incanted another Void spell, followed by another Lightning Bolt to the creatures' backs. The brilliant blasts of manifesting electricity caught the frog trio's immediate attention. Without hesitation, they ceased dashing themselves senselessly against Petra's Crystalline Wall.
"You idiot!" Her cousin's muffled howl was audible even from a distance. "These blue bastards are magic resistant! RUN!"
Her warning came too late, for the frogs had locked on to the solitary sorceress who stood without an Abjurer to shield her.
As they leapt and bound toward Gwen, the frog-men split in three, demonstrating a low cunning capable of executing pack tactics.
Gwen readied herself for a world of pain. "Ariel!"
Her mongoose was the first to engage.
On Gwen's right, the marten fired off a blast of Lightning Needles that struck the unsuspecting, hulking frog in the face, sending it skittering into a howling madness. The mongoose then launched itself with a thunderclap toward its disorientated prey, transforming itself into a blur of crackling energy that bit, slashed, and mauled the creature mercilessly.
On the left, Caliban met the battle-toad tail first, piercing its carapace at the thigh and halting its movements instantly. The momentum of the giant creature, however, proved too much for either of the combatants. As the frog-thing struck out against Caliban, it tore the ligaments of Caliban's tail, sending the netherworld scorpioid into a furious fit. However, the frog's careless assault also crippled its leg, resulting in a torso-sized chunk of flesh dislocating from its thigh.
Monster and monster then fell upon one another as a blur of tooth and nail, carapace and vivisecting flesh.
The final creature made it within thirty feet of Gwen when it ran face-first into a nest of hidden tentacles.
Dark Tentacles composed of Void-matter ate into the creature's hide, ignoring its armour and lashing it into the ground, pinning it helplessly as the boundless hunger tore at its life force.
With a grunt of supreme, supernatural force, the creature made it another two meters, using its magical resistance to negate Gwen's life-draining side effect. Unfortunately, it charged right into the second blossom of hysterical, lightning-charged tentacles.
The Lighting and the Void Tentacles' combined force created a crisscrossed network of white and blue, lifting their victim bodily into the air. As a candid moment, the horrific and the comical came to astounding matrimony as her yin-yang octopi tugged an ogre-sized frog back and forth between them, helplessly suspended mid-air. Unfortunately, both spells proved insufficient in killing her foe.
From behind her crystal barrier, Petra's blue eyes grew brilliant with amazement.
Gwen, however, had no time to laugh at the unexpected froggy-in-the-middle.
To the dismay of her gallery, she began to run towards the trapped frog.
"What the fuck are you doing!" Petra cried out. "Don't be an idiot! It'll gut you with one swipe!"
Gwen approached within melee distance of the floating terror-toad. A hypothesis had been floating in her head since her uncle Jun mentioned their amulet's function, and the Core she had earlier gained provided further evidence that needed affirmation.
With a sudden burst of rapturous strength, the creature lunged for her out of pure malice.
"Dimension Door!" Gwen disappeared and appeared behind the thing. Her tentacles retrieved the monstrous frog and held it within their suspended embrace.
Once again, the boon of the Lightning Element showed its true wrath. An element gifted by the Gods to hunt monsters, the dozen or so bolts of electrical discharge ravaged the innards of the frog and cooked it inside out. Even near death, Gwen could feel the creature's chaotic flesh trying to repel her magic, but by now, it was too weak to sustain its elemental resistance.
As it expired, Gwen felt its "Essence" suffuse the Kirin amulet.
She then made for Caliban's prey before her Familiar consumed it entirely.
"Oh my God! You stupid bychit!" Petra's voice held more frustration than anger now. Having no more enemies to fight, she lowered her Crystalline Wall and watched her Spell-Cube disperse into mineral dust. She had to protect the wounded Mages, but Gwen could see Petra also wanted to make sure that her idiotic cousin didn't get herself killed.
On Petra's left, Ariel was losing ground against the hulking blue frog. Her Familiar's problem was that it couldn't inflict significant damage to the armour-plated creature. Meanwhile, even thrashing wildly without any attempt at strategic combat, the battle-toad managed to land a hit on Ariel, each time sending the wounded mongoose through the air like a struck ball.
Inevitably, the monster scored a home run, and Ariel went skittering across the bog and into the mess of bones that decorated the tree's undergrowth.
The frog then leapt for Ariel's Master.
Her cousin swore.
"Dimension Door!" The Enchanter expended her life-saving crystal and appeared just behind the creature.
Without warning, Petra's eyes blazed with the dull gold of flaring Enchantment.
The frog-spawn stopped in its tracks. With a grunt of supreme effort, Petra forced the frog to kneel.
"FINISH IT!" Her cousin called out to her. "It's resistant! You got thirty seconds!"
Nearer their left flank, Caliban and the frog-beast traded wounds, with the spider's pseudo-physiology negating injury. Meanwhile, suffering blood loss and evisceration, the battle-toad grew weaker and weaker until it fell to grievous wounds.
Gwen materialised from thin air with a blast of electrical discharge and shot a Lightning Bolt right into the frog's open maw, watching its eyes burst with brilliant cobalt.
Another warm trickle suffused the Kirin amulet.
She then turned to the final creature.
"HURRY!" Petra gritted her teeth. "What the hell are you doing?"
Both of her pets closed on the held creature, a blur of tenebrous blades and whirling lightning. With a final Dimension Door, she zipped behind the thing and channelled the rest of her mana into Ariel's elementally charged fur, turning the frog into a pincushion.
Her Kirin amulet gorged upon the essence of the last frog.
"What the hell was that?" Petra snarled, her eyes flashing with anger. "Why would you try to melee these things? Who the hell trained you?"
"There's a reason for this. You'll have to trust me." Gwen put up her hands in a gesture of genuflection. "I am serious."
Her cousin's accusing eyes were steel, but looking upon the carnage created by Gwen, her expression visibly softened.
"How are you feeling? That was a lot of spells," Petra inquired with exasperation, exhaling with effort. "Risky moves, Gwen."
As if on cue, Gwen stumbled where she stood, forcing Petra to brace her by the shoulder.
"I am not out of mana yet," Gwen's face regained some of its pinkness. "I am just a little woozy from the drain's all."
Fei quickly followed into the clearing.
"Who's that? An ally?" Petra pointed to the skinny Mage; another Spell Cube materialised in her casting hand.
Fei's surveyed the clearing, evidently trying to hold back his disgust.
"That's Fei Lin, from the House of Lin. He's a teammate of that Mage over there." Gwen pointed to the survivors.
Seeing that his name was mention, Yuan, the one who'd been trying to recover his mana, came jogging toward the pair of cousins.
Behind him, the girls were still in shock. One of them was still mortally wounded. Besides her, the kneeling girl-Mage cradling her companion turned her face toward Gwen, her eyes full of desperation and pleading hope.
"Please! Please help Lily, she..."
"I got Healing Potions." Gwen materialised two injectors.
"No, she needs more than that." Petra sighed. "She's infected by a magical phage."
Assisting Gwen by the arm, the group approached the wounded girl.
"You should forfeit," Petra said coldly after observing a red rash that was even now spreading across the girl's body.
"Please, if there's anything you can do," Lily's companion begged, her contorted face a mess of melted makeup.
The wounded sorceress gasped and coughed up blood. The rash spread yet again. Now it was making its way down her thighs. Gwen couldn't help notice that the welts looked curiously similar to the red frogs' leathery complexion.
"Petra?" Gwen wondered why her cousin was staring so intently at the girl. "Could you..."
Sighing, Petra materialised a Spell Cube.
Positive energy suffused the afflicted Lily. In a moment, her breathing returned to normal, and her diseased skin ceased its advancement.
"You—!" Lily's shell-shocked companion turned to Petra angrily. "You said you didn't have any healing!"
Petra's eyes held a dangerous, frigid intensity.
Gwen read the situation and moved to intervene. Unfortunately, her ailing constitution provided no opportunity for her to come between the two.
"You bitch!" the Mage continued. "Lily could have-"
Petra backhanded the sorceress across the face so hard that her neck cracked.
"Petra!" Gwen could have swallowed an egg whole.
"Ungrateful scum," Petra spat. "Get the fuck out of here— or I will end you."
Gwen didn't know what to say.
Was Petra in the wrong?
She saved their lives. She risked her life to defend them against those monsters. She had continued to do so when she could have escaped anytime. What gave these foolish children the privilege to question her motives? They owed Petra their lives.
The girl Mage picked herself up from the ground and began to sob.
Lily, now recovered and standing, bowed deeply before Petra and apologised profusely.
"Don't talk to me. Just go." Petra commanded.
The party didn't move. The girls were too afraid to move. What if more of the frog things were waiting in the waters beyond?
Beside them, Fei conversed quietly with Yuan, watching the spectacle unfold.
After a minute, Caliban returned, having consumed the carcasses.
Gwen sensed some of her vitality returning and turned toward the stalking spider expectantly.
"Well?" She crossed both sets of fingers. "Got anything for me, Cali?"
Caliban vomited forth a mass of viscera.
Yuan turned away. Fei was better, having become accustomed to Caliban after a day and a half of witnessing the Void fiend at its finest.
Petra stared at Gwen in incomprehension.
Lily fainted once more. The rude one with the swollen cheeks abruptly vomited through her nose.
Gwen gingerly reached into the steaming pile and picked out an object.
"Ta-da!" She presented the bloody thing before Petra, whose irises contracted.
A Creature Core!
Their eyes met; an understanding passed between two women of competence.
"I see," Petra said. "I apologise for doubting you. Good work."
"Thanks," Gwen affirmed Petra's acknowledgement.
Feeling her mana pool running on fumes, Gwen called Ariel and Caliban toward her. Caliban's form was missing two of its limbs, with a third hanging limpidly, though her Familiar didn't seem to care at all. Ariel, on the other hand, was battered and bloody and in significant pain.
"EE-EE!" Gwen injected the marten with a healing potion, then unsummoned both.
The Core disappeared into Gwen's ring. She would trade it for CCs when they were out of the Dungeon.
The survivors gathered up. Gwen greeted them all once more, then produced blankets, the decanter, and an assortment of canned foodstuffs so that they could all partake in the joy of having survived an ugly encounter.
"Thank you." The young Mages bowed toward the big sister sorceress and gingerly accepted her food, water, and cleansing. Gwen passed over a Mana injector to Petra, and the two girls stabbed the short-fire needles into their thighs.
Once their mana recovered, Petra took the opportunity to extract from her cowed victims her saviour's tax.
The Enchanter crafted a dozen cubes, one every few minutes, as they rested. She had expended many of her Spell Cubes, and now she needed replenishment. From Gwen, Petra extracted an assortment of Lightning spells, as Gwen was now too weak to sustain more Void Magic than necessary.
"Thank God you've got Dimension Door." Petra waited until Gwen recovered, then made another two copies.
"Have you seen the others?" Gwen had to inject another Mana potion, burning her alchemical cooldowns for the next twelve hours.
"No, and for a good reason. We need to stay here." Petra leaned in close to Gwen's ear, where she could feel her soft breath on her lobes. "There's a boon for us up on that tree. I've been eyeing it, but now that you're here, we can do it. To avoid complication, we need to do this as soon as possible."
"Oh?" Gwen felt Petra's ticklish breath.
"We need privacy if we want to hold on to our prize," Petra whispered. "We need these hangers-on to fuck off."
"...oh?" Gwen may have had experience fighting Monsters and duelling Mages, but she had never been in a situation where she had to tell a peer to "fuck off and survive the wolf-infested woods on your own".
When Gwen neither affirmed nor rejected her recommendation, Petra's expression grew ambivalent.
"Are you recovered?" Petra moved away from the intimacy they had momentarily shared.
Gwen examined her condition with a quick meditation.
Her health was manageable. Caliban had replenished a significant portion of it, though a jolt of Positive Energy would do well in mending her fatigue. Her mana pool had been topped up by the injectors as well, so she was ready for action, though far from peak performance.
"Yeah, I am good to go."
"Alright then." Petra evil-eyed the folks around them. "Regardless of your choice, let's do it."
Not far from Gwen and Petra, Fei sat with Yuan, watching the two girls recover their mana.
The dual-element sorceress had a sickly beauty about her that made one's heart sore, while the Mineral Mage, Petra, possessed a frigid kind of attraction that fascinated the observer. Presently, the two sorceresses appeared to be planning a way to ascend the tree.
"There is a fruit up there—" Yuan announced quietly to his companion, then hissed. "— Don't look up!"
Fei forced himself to remain unaffected.
"Do you think anyone saw your signal?"
"We didn't see anyone on our way here," Fei said quietly. "It was just Gwen and me."
"That's good and bad." Yuan looked over at their companions, Lily and Wenshi. The girls cowed by Petra would be of no use in an insurrection. "Alright, so I found something up that tree. A magical fruit or perhaps a precious herb— but unless we can fight those girls off, we'll be looking at kissing 20 to 50 CCs goodbye."
"You can't fight Gwen!" Fei shook his head. "She's too strong. If you've seen what I've seen, you wouldn't even dream of it."
Yuan glanced again at their opponents. The Conjurer sorceress was now upright, resting her weight on her back foot, her swan's neck craned and looking upward. Beside her, the Mineral Mage quickly noticed him looking, forcing him to turn back to Fei Lin.
The girls were undoubtedly dangerous.
But the rewards were also great.
If he could come top 10 in this competition, the recognition he would gain from his Clan was immeasurable.
"Listen," Yuan gripped his friend's arm tightly, afraid that the enthralled Illusionist might turn on him. "I have a way of contacting a Diviner I know..."
A discrete distance away, Gwen and Petra were ready to proceed. Petra pointed out that Caliban was probably their best bet in scaling the tree, to which Gwen summoned the spider horror once again.
When Caliban emerged once more from the veil between two worlds, Gwen noticed its body was once more "whole". She measured her summoning's exactitude and acknowledged that Caliban's most recent emergence had cost her a little more vitality than she was used to, though thankfully, still within range of Almudj's buffer.
The outcome made sense. Caliban was, after all, a shapeless thing of the hungering dark, a resident of the Void. It was her contract that gave Caliban its fair proportion and sent it ambling into the Prime Material.
Gwen straddled the first segment of Caliban's thorax, while Petra took up near the tail, entirely at ease with the eldritch appearance of the aberrant arachnid.
"You're not disgusted by Caliban?" Gwen asked Petra curiously as they made slow progress up the trunk of the skyward tree.
Petra balanced herself on Caliban's body, shifting her weight as it stabbed its bladed limbs into the timber with trained ease.
"It's beautiful." To Gwen's surprise, Petra patted Caliban's tail, which wagged here and there excitedly. "I'd love to have a powerhouse Familiar like this one. Who'd think that it could near-solo a Blue Gila?"
"A Blue Gila?" Gwen noticed that her "Comprehend Language" Stone couldn't quite translate the last part of Petra's speech.
"A Gila," Petra repeated.
"The bestiary we have in the Frontier is very limited," Gwen explained helpfully, hoping for clarification.
Her cousin was happy to help. "The Gila is a race of creatures that roam the space between planes, drifting from the Astral into the Prime Material. No one knows where they are from, only that they are creatures of chaos. The weakest ones are the Reds, who are cunning like goblins but about as strong as a Soldier-class Magical Beast, and the blue ones we fought are a little stronger. They can get pretty huge, with the den mother reaching six or seven meters and approaching the risk tier of a Gargantuan. There's also rumours of Emerald Gilas that uses magic."
"And the red rash? That's a phage that turns the victim into a Gila."
"Wha? Wait— that's... horrible!" Gwen was starting to understand why the 'friend' of Lily was so desperate.
Petra said nothing else. Instead, she pointed upward.
Gwen tilted her head and spotted their prize.
A pod about the size of an adult hung from the top branch.
It resembled a jackfruit or a durian, and it gave off a scent that suggested the fruit was ripe for the picking. To Gwen's Almudj-enhanced olfactory senses, the aroma was a cornucopia of flavours.
Her mind turned to the piles of animal carcasses laid out as nutrients for the tree's roots. There was something deeply suspicious there. Had the Gila creatures been feeding the trees, awaiting this day? Or was it that something else was the tree's caretaker.
"Do you think the tree has a guardian?" Gwen asked Petra, whose eyes were likewise focused intently on the fruit.
"Most certainly," Petra said to her. "That's why we left bait below."
"Bait—?" Gwen's eyes widened as details clicked into place. No wonder Petra was so compliant in leaving the others alone. No wonder she didn't disperse them by force!
"Petra!" Gwen's cry of horror rang out among the trees. "You did not!"