Petra returned her accusation with a passion that surprised Gwen.
"Did I not tell you we should have dispersed them?" Her cousin studied her with critical eyes. "They're not your allies, Gwen. They're our competitors. Did you know that before you arrived, that Yuan fellow was the one chased by the Blue Gila? That he fled toward me? Had I been a lesser Mage, I would have died down there, and he would have fled."
Gwen deflated. Well, now she understood.
But it wasn't just Yuan down there. There were the girls as well, not to mention Fei, who had done a bang-up job cooking and cleaning after her. She still owed him one for diverting the Mages from the house of Xiao.
She glanced downward; they were now too far up the canopy to see any details below. On that note, the height of the tree was physically implausible. Gwen was sure that Caliban had been making slow but steady progress for at least ten minutes. Even going at their snail's pace, it put the tree at about 250-300 meters. In fact, from the marshland, the tree seemed barely over 30. In her mind, she knew that the Eiffel Tower was 300 meters, the tallest tree in Gwen's world was Hyperion, which stood at 115. If so, what the hell was she climbing?
Then again, Gwen reminded herself. Rhino-sharks swam through solid rock in this world. What's so strange about a tree with an internal pocket space?
"At any rate," Petra observed the fruit. "The objective is ours. That's what matters."
Her cousin then produced the Spell Cube with Gwen's Void Bolt.
"I've been saving this," She allowed the cube to levitate into the air before activating it with a flourish. In a second, the spell manifested, forcing Petra to let loose a low, breathless moan.
Soundlessly, the Void Bolt cut the fruit at the stem, causing it to titter as the final few fibres broke under the tension.
"The feedback is stronger than I anticipated." Petra met her eyes, her face pale with exertion. "So that's what it's like to use the Void. To think you've suffered this every time— I am impressed."
Gwen's mind remained upon the people below, specifically, the innocent Fei, who had followed her into certain doom.
"It's falling! Catch it!" Petra commanded her. "No, not with your hand! Use your Storage Ring!"
Gwen snapped back to reality as the fruit fell. A burst of aroma erupted from the durian-thing, a sickly-sweet scent that clouded the senses with odious delirium. Gwen reached out with one hand and tried to calculate the trajectory of the falling fruit.
She waited until it was almost overhead, then willed her Storage Ring to work its spatial magic.
It was just as well that she had an "improved" mana pool. Lesser Mages with a ring of equal spatial generosity would not have been able to "catch" an item of such size and volume so effortlessly, at least not without exceeding magical limitations.
With a sound of displaced air, the fruit disappeared.
"Quick!" Petra directed spider and Master. "We need to stow it properly to retain its properties. Get Caliban to set us down on that branch!"
Gwen shifted her spider Familiar until they descended upon the broad-branch Petra had pointed out.
Petra burned a utility cube, magically flattening the branch into a rectangular platform that comfortably held the both of them.
Gwen retrieved the durian with a thud.
Petra materialised a dagger in one hand and stabbed into the bulbous, spiky exterior of the durian. The blade penetrated easily, after which Petra worked the edge until it reached the shell's nadir. She then dug her fingers into the open fold and pulled, splitting the giant durian in twain.
If the scent from earlier had been intense, it was now so redolent that Gwen felt as though she was tasting the fruit. Like the durian of her old world, it was deliciously foul, the fragrance so potent and offensive as to set their eyes to water.
Petra dug into the white membranes and pulled out a piece of flesh that resembled a block of wobbly cream-coloured jade with the clarity of cloudy sap.
"We eat first!" she ordered Gwen. "I can only seal so many so quickly. Wildland fruits are most potent when eaten fresh."
"Doesn't our Storage Rings have stasis?" Gwen inquired carefully, wondering why Petra was so agitated with the need for haste.
"Only for mundane produce." Petra dragged out a piece of flesh and flash froze it in a Crystalline Cube. "Alchemists and professional herbalists have especially enchanted Storage Rings and Stasis containers. As for this specific fruit, I read about it in the university's Dungeon archives. Unless I am wrong, this is a Fructum Vitae. From the moment it is removed from the mother tree, we have a limited window to either consume it or stow it."
"Shut up and eat!"
Gwen obediently took up the white flesh and placed it in her mouth. Instantly, where she bit into the flesh, the peachy fibres melted into a creamy stream of indescribable flavour that cascaded down her throat and permeated her torso. Visibly, her hair grew a little longer; even her nails seemed to lengthen.
"Oh, my." Gwen couldn't help but let out a slight moan. Within her body, motes of Almudj's mana began to glow magnificently with renewal and vitality, as though each were tiny seeds that had tasted the spring rain.
She reached out for another slice.
"No!" Petra slapped her hand away, then returned to her meditation. "You'll explode!"
"I can handle it," Gwen insisted. She wasn't about to let an opportunity to restore or temper Almudj's mana pass her by. The more of the serpent's life-force Gwen nurtured, the more likely she was capable of surviving higher tiers of the Void's volatile feedback. Who knows, if she gathered enough of the vital force, maybe she could reconnect with Almudj, awaken it from slumber, even.
Not to mention, she still owed the rainbow Mythic her life.
Silently, she admitted there was selfishness as well, a lingering, wish-fulfilling fantasy that maybe, just maybe, if she were ever again in a pinch, there would be a mythical serpent dropping down from the heavens to save her.
"Fine. If you wish to be the python that thought it could swallow an elephant, be my guest." Petra turned away and focused on her work. Her cousin had finished her piece and was now creating crystalline cubes to preserve the other petals of flesh.
Gwen proceeded without heeding Petra's warning.
The second piece went down her throat like a bag of razors, forcing her to kneel over in a fit of agony. The vital force that permeated her body seemed to stretch every inch of her physical form, feeling as though someone had forcible inflated her lungs until she was on the verge of bursting.
Besides Gwen, Petra had finished her third cube. She was about to begin on the fourth when Gwen's moanful utterance became such that she could no longer ignore it.
"Lesser Restoration!" Petra expanded yet another one of her limited supply of utility cubes.
Gwen had been bearing her baptism as a woman dunked in smouldering lime when unexpectedly, a cold wave of healing energy repaired her pain-wracked body and restored her mind to clarity.
Now lucid, her Almudj's Essence hungrily lapped up the primal vitality.
Over the next minute, the pent-up pressure of raging effervescence within her body deflated. Though she had to wipe away a trickle of blood from below her nose, she felt more hale than ever.
Did she dare she risk a third?
"You're insane. It's too reckless!" Petra snapped, watching her cousin gazing forlornly at the white-jade flesh. "Gwen, don't be an idiot. I don't have another Lesser Restoration."
"Sorry..." Gwen apologised for her greed. Her Divination had fired up as soon as she touched the third piece, indicating a significant life-or-death trial ahead.
Petra finished off her sixth cube.
"Okay, we need to go," she announced abruptly, abandoning the pile of lychee-flesh spilling from the giant durian. "NOW. The flesh is about to turn."
The two girls quickly mounted Caliban, who began to make headway below.
Above them, a sudden change came over the juicy flesh. Where the fruit had radiated Positive Energy, the crystal-jelly tissue abruptly turned necrotic with deathly malignancy. The wooden platform abruptly shrivelled into withered wood, the branch becoming blackened and rotten as though it had decayed decades ago.
At the same time, the tree itself seemed to lose all vitality. A shower of leaves began to surrender to the uncertain space below, falling over the girls and catching in their hair and on Caliban's nooks and crannies.
"Good God!" Gwen observed as they descended, making it just past the enervating circumference range, awed by the magnitude of the tree's destruction.
"Duality in all things," Petra parroted their babulya. "Where there is life, there is death. That is the reason we had to hurry."
"Right..." Thinking now of death, Gwen's thoughts flittered toward those they had abandoned below. Were they still okay?
To Gwen's immense relief, no guardian had made its presence known thus far. Unfortunately, the young men and women below were NOT as they had left them.
Instead, to her spine-tingling, scalp-numbing distress, she and Petra were now surrounded.
"Greetings, O' sorceress from the Song Clan!" The young man now cheerfully greeting them from below had a face hateful to Gwen.
It was the Abjurer from the Clan Xiao, the very bastard who had robbed her of her Creature Core the previous day.
His team was spread out strategically in a semi-circle, presumably within the range of his Shielding abilities. The two girls Petra had saved stood to one side, an impassive gallery, with Fei and Yuan occupying the adjacent space.
Fei looked to have been roughed up; his shirt was torn, and his face was swollen on one side. The Mage Yuan, however, had a smug expression that Gwen knew all too well.
Petra shot her an "I told you so", smiling when Gwen's eyes grew as hard as peach pits.
Mindful of her cousin's smugness, Gwen considered their present condition. Her mana had recovered, and her vitality brimmed. If this had to be a fight, then she would give them a bloody good one. This time, she would not retreat. This time, with her newfound confidence in Caliban, she would make sure these bastards knew the cost of messing with her not once but twice.
"What a pair you make," the Abjurer smirked with undisguised intent. "Are you sisters?"
Gwen had to do a double-take. It was true that some Asians were face-blind when it came to Westerners. She and Petra did not look remotely alike, but the horny prick was probably too preoccupied to see even that.
"Anyway." the Abjurer rubbed his jaws. "You may call me Xiao Huyi, or Young Master Huyi, of the Hubei Clan of Xiao. These are my companions: Lei, Jingwen, Fuhui, and Pan, fellow disciples in all, and all Xiao by name."
"From my understanding, you are Gwen Song, and you, my dear." Huyi turned his eyes on Petra. "You're the prodigy from Fudan, right? The Mineral Enchanter? I've heard of you. My brother's a Second Year at Fudan too."
"And what does Young Master Xiao want from commoners like us?" Petra stepped in front of Gwen protectively; her posture suggested her patience was running on fumes. Unfortunately, with Petra's looks, this only seemed to incite their opponents.
"A commoner? Hardly! You're Magister Wen's belle of the ball! Her darling protègè, and who could fault that?" Huyi's incriminating gaze did not suggest to Gwen that he was privileging Petra's magical talents. "If the two of you are willing to forfeit your acquisitions, I wouldn't mind sparing you some CCs by the Dungeon's end. You get to keep 'face', and we get to part ways on friendly terms. How's that?"
"Shut your mouth," Petra stated coldly. "Your breath turns my stomach."
"Why make it harder on yourself?" Huyi appeared to control the simmering rage boiling beneath his amiable exterior, but his Chestershire smile failed to reach his eyes. "Had your Master not taught you to partake the offer of respect than force down the bitter cup? Or is that too philosophical for you gweilo girls?"
"You're walking a dangerous path," Gwen interjected suddenly; her eyes grew cobalt with electricity as she revved up a mighty Flashbang. If they were going to fight, she would have the first strike. There was no point letting these asses stroke their egos while talking down to them.
As the parties stared down, a chilling breeze stole all warmth from the peat bog.
Then, as if on cue, a misty shower descended.
Motes of water sizzled as they splashed against Gwen's skin-suit, sending azure discharges of static to arc from her body.
"Well, the first item on the agenda, how about sharing some of that fruit—" Huyi's patience proved as pathetic as his threats.
In a split second, the mana she had conjured rushed back into Gwen's conduits. Her head grew instantly swollen, her brain felt like Fuyi had taken a mallet to her temple.
It took Gwen a split-second to realise she had been Counterspelled. The likelihood of such a thing was impossible on the Frontier, for Alesia had said that the ability to counter a spell as it manifested was a rare occurrence: Affinity, experience, talent and split-second judgement; all of the above was needed for a Counterspell to succeed. It was a key but rare duelling skill, one only made possible when the spellcraft knowledge gap between duelists grew significant enough for one party to be entirely predictable.
"Ha!" Huyi mocked her as Gwen's face paled. "Fredrick Lin was right. You do open with that specific spell, every time!"
"Gwen, take us up!" Without waiting, Petra made the call and activated her Crystalline Shell. With a sound of crinkling stone, the sheltering barrier moulded itself around Caliban, protecting the Void spider as it began an upward retreat.
Though Gwen felt drunk with disorientation, her cousin's decree was sufficient enough to will Caliban into a rapid ascent.
"Oh no, you don't!" Huyi materialised what appeared to be a bamboo scroll from his storage ring. "You four! Cover me!"
Their opponents consisted of two Evokers, both Fire, an Air Transmuter, and a Diviner. The Diviner hid in the support line, scanning their surroundings for Gwen's allies.
A blanket fire of spells washed over Petra's crystalline Shielding, blinding the pair and setting the tree to shudder and shake from the explosions, furthermore triggering a violent shower of leaves that fell about them like an emerald waterfall. A section of the wood caught fire, further making Caliban's purchase precarious and risky for the girls.
Below Gwen and her cousin, Huyi read aloud the bamboo scroll, activating its ancient sorcery.
"Nine-Jia-Zhi-YI Seal!" Gwen's translation stone was utterly incapable of keeping up with the Daoist incantations, spamming her mind with gobbledygook.
The spell hit.
Caliban paused. Something terrible struck Gwen's spine as her Divination screamed, then unbidden, her Familiar's physical manifestation in the material world imploded.
Gwen suddenly stepped into thin air, her legs straddling nothing. She fell about half a meter before landing on the bottom of Petra's crystalline wall. Petra likewise fell the same distance and landed beside Gwen, though with more grace and control. With a gesture, her cousin willed a crystalline partition to bite into the tree's trunk, violently digging into the timber.
"Ariel!" Gwen called for her other Familiar.
The marten, now significantly restored, appeared next to its Master.
When Gwen tried to summon Caliban again, she found the netherworld creature was absent from its pocket dimension. Where had it gone?
"I'll prepare a few Conjured Flashbangs, then open up with a Void Blast," Gwen shouted under the ding of spells pinging off Petra's Shielding.
"No," Petra stopped her. "Too risky."
"What do you suggest?"
Petra reinforced her Shielding; A Mineral Mages' advantage lay in their walls, barriers and shields, which possessed high efficacy against physical and elemental damage.
"We break through the middle. You and I, we Dimension Door first: me, right; you, left. Then, we DD pincer where they least expect it. We go for their leader. With both of our Lightning bursts at close range, we should be able to stun the fucker. As soon as we're both in range, you encase us with a Void Shield, and I'll Hold Monster the prick. With Xiao as our hostage. We can force the others to forfeit. That or we Void his limbs, one at a time."
Gwen's heart pounded in her seated ribs.
"Right." She nodded affirmatively, trusting her cousin to be the more experienced tactician.
"Gwen." Petra arrested her wrist.
"Petra?" Gwen gulped.
"No more mercy."
Gwen felt her lips parch as she met Petra's eyes, two crystallines, pale blue orbs surrounding the loci of her dark pupils. She fought down the screaming compunction inside her head. Voices of the past, both recent and distant, protested against maiming and murder. At the same time, Gunther's lesson reared its head like Almudj's rainbow from the mindscape of her memory.
"Did you think this was going to end amicably?"
"They were dead the moment you appeared in their lives!"
Petra's barrier rocked. Fissures appeared like living spider webs, turning the transparent crystal opaque with refracted light, illuminating their faces with flaming, marigold shards.
"Right," Gwen affirmed her cousin's sentiments. "No more mercy."
With a suppressed groan, she allowed the Void to fill her mana channels, feeling Almudj's vital force fighting to keep her body intact. Her electric eyes dimmed until they became two swirling orbs of consuming darkness.
Beside her, Petra's own eyes lost their colour and became two crystal pools of water, so pale there was barely a hint of blue.
A thick membrane of bark-like texture covered Gwen's body, encasing her in midnight.
Petra became encased in scintillating crystal.
They were ready.
Gwen took a deep breath. She wasn't at all confident that she could control the burst of the Void matter when her Dimension Door manifested, but that would be no one's fault but Huyi's own.
Perhaps she should effect a suitable warcry? The situation seemed ripe and ready for a good rallying.
"YOU BASTARDS—" She began.
"—CAO! THERE'S SOMETHING—"
The assault upon their Shield ceased. The girls met one another's eyes in confusion.
"A trick?" Gwen asked.
"Like I would know." Petra shook her head. "Hold the DD just in case."
It was absolute foolishness for their opponents to stop their attack now. Gwen was the kind of Mage who could quickly turn the tables if one was negligent in a sustained offence.
Paranoid, the girls waited another minute, suspended upon the tree trunk where the crystalline structure had bit into the wood. They awaited the moment when the final spell hit, and in that split second, they would set upon their foes as two tigresses unleashed.
Yuan couldn't breathe.
The Abjurer had never thought that he would be in a position where death was preferable. When trapped within the watery bubble, the first minute had brought a significant opportunity for philosophical contemplation as eighteen years of life flashed before his eyes.
After that, the next ten seconds elapsed like years.
Yet, just when he'd thought his life was forfeit, a bubble of sweet air met his lips.
But half a minute later, he was out of breath again. The feeling of impending asphyxiation was like a dirk stabbing into his brain, demanding release so that his gnashing organs could find liberation from their misery.
Just as he wondered if he should swallow the marsh water and end his life with dignity, there came another bubble, another breath.
That was when Yuan realised the horrible reality of his and his team's present condition.
Whoever captured them wasn't trying to kill them.
They were in it for the sport.
But how was it that he came to be in this dilemma again?
It all began an hour ago when Yuan had contacted the Diviner from the Clan of Xiao, who had promised a fair split of credits if any of the dozen or so lackeys he had contracted delivered a source of CCs.
Being from a small Clan, Yuan had no reason to watch his chances at gathering CCs float away, just the same as him having no desire to see two stuck-up princesses exit the Dungeon with a trove of treasures.
His compatriot, another nobody from the Lin's, Fei, seemed to know the girls, but Yuan had forced the weak-willed fool into obedience with both threats of telling his uncle and a few well-placed punches to the gut.
As the stupid, sentimental idiot grovelled in the dirt, Yuan received a reply from his collaborator.
They would be there within twenty-odd minutes!
For good measure, he socked Fei again in the diaphragm.
"I know we're supposed to be teammates," Yuan said to his erstwhile companion. "But we're just a PUG group, right? So no hard feelings."
Fei whimpered on the floor, coiled like a cooked prawn.
"I suggest you stay put," Yuan gave the poor Illusionist another swift kick to the chest.
He then turned his attention to the girls. The short one was Lily, and the taller one was Wenshi.
"You girls want payback?"
Lily's eyes grew wild with fear.
Wenshi wasn't such a coward. The girl nodded.
"Good. Stick with me. We'll fleece those bitches yet."
Wenshi placed a hand on her swollen cheek.
"Let that be your strength," Yuan advised happily. "You can slap them around all you like later, although I have a feeling the Young Master would love a go himself, ha!"
The unassuming girl grew crimson with anticipation. Yuan tsked. What a vengeful little harlot. Was it so easy to forget that the "bitch" saved her earlier? It was women like this that he hated the most.
After that, Clan Xiao's five-person team arrived. Yuan had shaken hands with their leader, Huyi, and then they laid out the ambush.
"You have done very, very well." Huyi patted Yuan approvingly on the shoulder. "If your account of their abilities is correct, then I'll give you extra 10 CCs as a reward."
"Thank you, Master Xiao." Yuan was confident that calling the Xiao Clan was the best decision he had ever made.
Usually, Yuan loved the company of beautiful girls. But this time, the two girls made him feel self-conscious. They were so gifted, perfect, and came from good families that gave them tremendous support and resources. They had everything that fate denied Yuan. To watch them humbled, taken off their pedestal and stepped on would give him the most longed-for, sadistic pleasure.
Yuan recalled shivering from the cold. He could hardly wait.
When the girls eventually descended, and the ambush had been carried out precisely as they had planned.
It was raining in the marsh, but Yuan didn't care that he became bedraggled. As soon as they cracked that crystalline barrier, he would see the two girls dragged by their hair before the Young Master of the Clan of Xiao. They would be stripped of their possessions, humiliated and made to quit the Dungeon.
Or that was the plan, at least.
So what had happened?
Yuan still wasn't sure.
Above them, the twin-Evoker's spells had pounded the Crystal Shielding, cracking the surface and sending bits and pieces of it to fragment and fail.
Overjoyed, Yuan had turned to the others to make a quip but couldn't find his friend.
The Diviner, Jan, was gone.
Jan? Yuan recalled his confusion.
He recalled hearing the sound of sucking water; then the man evaporated!
"Oi! Oi!" he shouted out to the others. "Something just took your Diviner!"
Then one of the Evokers was gone too!
Yuan felt his balls shrink. Suddenly, he loathed the chaos of combat. There were exploding spells above, loud incantations below, tumbling leaves throughout, and bits of crystals that fell, conjoined by the soft archery of rain soaking their bodies.
"Where did Lei go?" Fuhui, the other Fire Evoker, demanded of the party.
"I don't know!" Yuan felt his spine turn to jelly as his mind reeled. What in Mao's name is going on?
Then the remaining three Mages were simultaneously swallowed by the sodden earth. This time, Yuan saw the source of their sudden abduction.
It was the peat bog! There was something under the slough!
"Run for the tree!" Yuan shouted to the girls, who were wide-eyed with terror. "Ru—"
Then he too became an inmate of the waters below.
The rain that had drenched them all had suddenly expanded from their clothes as if gaining sentience. There was the sensation of a terrific pull, after which they rested in their watery tombs.
Above Yuan, the vegetation closed like a pair of smirking lips.
Below, there was only cold, dark, smelly water.
The last thing he heard was a soft, amiable voice.
"Welcome to Motel Lea, my friends. You can check out anytime you like, but you WILL forfeit your rings' contents and the competition. Otherwise, you can enjoy an Undine's full-body service for the next thirty-six hours."
The girls stared at the smiling face waving below them, welcoming them home.
The party of Mages who had attacked them were gone.
Replacing the self-satisfied faces of their assailants was a man close to Gwen's fluttering heart.
"Richard!" Gwen dispelled her Void armaments; then, she Feather Fell gently toward Richard's open arms, her face livid with disbelief.
"EE-EE!" Ariel scampered down the tree and ran around Richard in circles.
"Petra!" Petra glanced below and saw Tao likewise with his arms open. The Illusionist's mouth opened to reveal neglected teeth; his face was full of smugness.
Gwen wrapped herself around Richard like an octopus. "Oh my god! Richard! Thank God! Thank God you're here! HOW?"
Petra landed heel first on Tao's face, balancing herself as he crumpled, stepping down gracefully via Tao's body.
"Mina!" Gwen greeted her other cousin.
Mina waited for her to detach from Richard, then they too embraced. Gwen squeezed her cousin tight, unable to help herself after the tension dissolved from her body. Despite her initial hesitation, Mina reciprocated her over-affectionate gesture.
"What happened?" Gwen scanned her surroundings. "Where are the others? Where's that Huyi guy? Where's Fei?"
"I've got them right here," Richard chuckled. "Lea, bring up one of our guests!"
A portion of the peat bog below their feet opened to reveal an aperture, within which entombed the silhouette of a feebly struggling Mage. Gwen recognised the face as one of Huyi's lackeys, specifically the Diviner.
A sleeve of green water encased the young Mage, giving him the comical likeness of a human-size edamame bean. Lea levitated the parcel of water above them, then with a pop, Richard released the Mage so that he fell to the floor gasping and gagging.
"Well, what do you think of my proposal?"
"I yield!" the Diviner emptied the contents of his Storage Ring. A few strange-looking crystals, assorted potions and random adventuring necessities poured out."Take it! Take it all! I give up! Let me go! I want out!"
"Good choice, my man!" Richard nodded approvingly. "Master Hao, are you there?"
A silvery mandala materialised beside the group.
With a thump of displaced air, a wizened, middle-aged man with an impressive Confucian moustache appeared.
"Xiao Pan is forfeiting the match," the Mage said without expression. "I will now transport you to a medical facility. Do you wish to proceed?"
The Diviner gazed upon Richard with absolute gut-wrenching hatred, snot and ejecta running down his handsome face.
"Lea—." Richard smiled with teeth.
"I forfeit! Take me now!"
A flash of Conjuration later, the boy was gone.
The Adjudicator turned his eyes upon the rest of them.
"Will you let the rest out?" he asked Richard seriously, his brows knitted. "If you intend to murder them in cold blood while they are helpless, that is your choice, but I will have to make a report."
Richard shrugged. "They tried to bully Gwen. They can wait."
"Richard… What happened? What did you do?" Gwen felt her rational world turned upside down by the sudden turn of events. Just as a minute ago, she had just set her mind to murder mode, now she was being treated to a grotesque comedy.
More pockets of the waterlogged bog opened around them. Gwen saw half a dozen pods of encased Mages writhing in their watery pouches in a radius centred around Richard. One by one, their victims rose from below the peat bog, suspended in the air.
"Well," Richard's eyes regarded his cargo of captured CCs lovingly. "I should thank you two for the distraction, but it's a long story…"
"Fei!" Gwen pointed to a skinny Mage suspended and barely conscious. "Dick, can you let this one go?"
Richard released the Water Tomb without question.
Fei choked and gagged on the floor, then turned over onto his stomach, vomiting forth a torrent of swamp water.
"Oh Mao, Gwen, thank Mao, you're okay," he choked. "Horrible. So horrible. I thought for sure I died. So many times."
"MMMMmmph! Mmmph! Mm!" One of the Mages, the one called Yuan, began to beat his tomb's walls. From what Gwen could see, his face was turning deathly pale with asphyxiation.
"It was him! He was the one who called the Xiao Clan!" Fei pointed out.
"Fei?" Tao recognised the haggard Illusionist. "Is that you?"
"Tao?" Fei feebly offered a greeting. "Yeah... it's me..."
"EE-ee?" Ariel yipped cutely.
With a wave of his hand, Richard injected a bubble of air into the sleeves. The inhabitants of Richard's watery worlds greedily gulped the air. Still, the momentary respite was worse than actual drowning, for their desperate salvation lasted no more than half a minute before they again begged for sweet release.
Gwen knelt beside the shivering Fei and made sure he was okay.
"Anyway." Richard turned to Gwen with eyes that were soft and mirthful. "Storytime! So, I landed pretty close to Tao and Mina. We ran into some others while looking for you two. Helped people out and made some gains. We were just headed down south when we saw an SOS sigil..."
Gwen stared numbly at the pile of trinkets, crystals, and Dungeon loot that lay in a knee-high heap beside them.
Richard told her that using Tao's Illusions and Lea's control over the water; they managed to spread Lea "like butter" over the opposing Mages without them suspecting. They then used a tunnel system in which Richard took advantage of the peat-bog to ambush the unsuspecting assailants.
"Anyway, what's it going to be, rat face?" Richard freed Huyi, the last Xiao left, from the watery tomb.
Besides them, the Adjudicator rolled his eyes. "You know, I've seen people get robbed in the dungeons, but he had never seen Clan disciples farmed like sheared sheep. You're a brave man, Mister Huang."
"What did you do to my Caliban?" Gwen interjected before Huyi could answer. "Release my familiar at once!"
The vomiting Huyi, however, had no interest in answering her. As soon as the Clanner finished hurling, he turned onto the Adjudicator. "YOU! Are you just going to let this happen? Who's your Registrar? I am going to file an official complaint! What's happened here is the negligence of your duty! He was torturing us! I was fucking tortured, do you understand me!"
"My Caliban..." Gwen tried to regain the boy's attention to no avail.
The Adjudicator stared at Huyi without a single hint of emotion. Once Huyi exhausted himself, the Magus turned to Richard. "You killing him?"
"Nope," Richard replied. "Happy, Huyi? You get to go home now."
"In your fucking dreams! You upstart dog!" the Abjurer swore at Richard, though he backed off as the words escaped his mouth, giving his threat a hint of the comical. "Do you know who I am?"
"You want to go back in there?" Richard knitted his dark brows. Lea's exquisitely beautiful face giggled beside the Conjurer and blew Huyi a kiss.
Huyi turned again to the Adjudicator. "Did you hear that? Arrest him now! He's trying to torture me! This behaviour is against the protocol of a Dungeon dive!"
The Adjudicator turned to Gwen and her companions as though Huyi was no more than flatulence.
"I hear a distress call," the Adjudicator said suddenly. "It sounds urgent."
"I do too," Richard agreed. "Very urgent."
"Yes, clearly audible," Petra added in.
"What distress call?" Tao chimed in, wondering if his companions were having hearing issues.
"If he doesn't tell me where Cali's gone," Gwen said quietly. "I am going to Void him..."
The gathered turned to stare at Gwen.
"You guys, for the love of Mao," Mina moaned, feeling a headache coming on.
"Yes, I better get going." The Adjudicator did not wait to dissipate into a cloud of silver.
Huyi regarded Gwen and her group with watery eyes. "Er... You wouldn't dare!"
"Richard, cover me," Petra faced the Abjurer with a look of pure malice, then produced a spell Cube. "I am trained in this sort of thing."
Unlike Gwen, Petra hadn't dispelled her Crystal Skin. "Now, I am going to ask questions, and you're going to—"
Gwen stepped in before Petra could begin her "trained" regime. Extending an exquisitely shapely leg ahead as though she was taking a step into the air, Gwen stomped Huyi in the chest and sent the sod skittering before he slammed into the ground, winded and wheezing.
"WHERE IS CALIBAN?!" she screeched. "Give me back my Cali!"
Just the very thought of Summoning Caliban and feeling his empty pocket dimension was making her see red. Being untrained in the art of interrogation, she did the only thing she could think of, which was to stomp on Huyi until the answers flowed out of his guts.
"Where is my Familiar?!" She stepped on Huyi's Mage Armour.
Watching her boot lay into the Young Master over and over again, the corner of Richard's mouth twitched.
"Gwen," he advised with great deliberation. "The way you're gingerly stomping him with those delicate stalks of yours, he'd likely develop a fetish."
Then Petra joined in, shattering the Abjurer's protective armour with a body blow before gutter-stomping his face.
Richard looked away. Gwen's cousin had no chill. Also, the girl was not joking when she said that she was "trained for this."
It took only a minute for Huyi to cough up the Core he had received from Gwen and "release" Caliban from his Clanner sorcery. With his forfeiture, Huyi gained the opportunity to be immediately transported to a medical facility.
Then, there was one more account to settle.
The comatose Yuan.
"You first or me first?" Petra asked Gwen, her eyes alive with excitement. "Me?"
Some distance away, Peaches split from the party and looked towards the uncertain, misty horizon, his eyes focused upon the middle distance. Behind him, Yuan begged for mercy. He confessed to all his crimes, his double-dealings. With a mere hint of Petra's hovering fist, he admitted to being a sexual pervert. In Tao's hand, the Illusionist held a recording device. Richard had advised they collect some 'precious memories; Tao felt as though he had become a snuff-vid director.
"Mack-Daddy, Little-dog, where are you guys?" Tao's eyes filled with misty remembrance of the old days when they'd flee from every danger in the Dungeon. "I miss you, dudes, so much."