With Yuan forfeiting after being taught a hard lesson in ethics, Gwen and her companions formed a huddle to discuss their next course of action.
Besides the party of five, Caliban, Ariel and Lea played about tagging one another, skittering back and forth across the soggy bog. Caliban resumed its serpentine form and slithered between the peat layers, while Lea cheated by diving into the marsh itself. Ariel, as a result, was left fuming and frustrated, chittering with frustration.
"Oh yes, your shares of the fruit." Petra threw three cubes toward Richard, Mina, and Tao consecutively. "Vitae Fruit, good for the skin. Eat it or trade it, up to you."
"How many CCs?" Richard asked.
"No idea." Petra materialised three more. She had six in total. "One for babulya, one for my Master, and one we can trade away. I'll pay for my Master's one with my portion of the CCs."
"Can I purchase the last one? I have a use for it." Gwen raised her hand. She had great use for the fruit, either to nourish Almudj's mana or to gift away for favours in the future.
The others did not mind her offer. Mina and Tao's father was still young, while Richard was in dire need of his CCs.
"All yours," Petra nodded.
Richard allowed the Stasis Cube to rest between his fingers, watching the white-jade flesh glisten like a work of art.
"I'll trade it for CCs," he said after some thought. "Gwen, can I keep it with you? You're welcome to trade me for it if you like."
"Sure," Gwen affirmed the offer. Perhaps, with babulya's help, she could consume two more pieces of flesh without incident.
"I'll eat it now," Mina announced. "Tao, you eat it too. Mao knows if you'll be able to hold onto it."
Tao gave Mina a mean look, but his heart wasn't in it. Everyone knew Mina was speaking from experience.
Petra dispelled the stasis Cube, and the pair of siblings partook of the wondrous gifts bestowed by the Fructum Vitae.
When sufficiently imbued with life, Mina asked Tao to conjure a mirror so she could examine herself. As with Gwen and Petra, her skin appeared more tender than before, her eyes a little brighter. The best part of it was her figure, which stood fuller.
"How do I look?" She turned to Richard, her smiling, luminous eyes forming two half-moons. The ability to talk with one's eyes was a talent neither Gwen nor Petra possessed but which Mina executed to perfection.
"Wonderful, Mina, as always." Richard retained that slight smile he always wore. "You too, Tao, you're looking rather buffed yourself."
Tao turned the mirror toward himself. Having absorbed the Fructum Vitae, his posture appeared more statuesque, his body more toned and masculine. The timidness that seemed to underly his exterior machismo became less pronounced.
"So, back to the Guardian?" Gwen packed away the spare Fructum Vita.
"Ah yes, the Guardian." Richard tapped his chin. "I think I know where it went."
Five pairs of eyes turned to the grinning Conjurer.
"There's a hollowed-out section beneath us. If there's going to be a guardian, I would suppose it's there. Lea, tell them." Richard called forth his Undine, who materialised from the waters beneath his feet.
"There is a cavern below, very big!" Lea fluttered her impossibly long lashes and illustrated what she had detected with her hands. "Big Salamander with many eggs."
"Those worth anything?" Richard turned to Petra.
"Gila Eggs?" Petra allowed the protective crystalline shell to fall from her body, fading into motes of mana as the fragments lost their enchantment. "That can't be right. Gila don't breed like that. They implant phages or tumorous tissue into their victims, and then the victim slowly turns into a Gila."
"What if the Gila found a host that's able to mutate?" Richard inquired. "Unless chaos follows specific biological pathways?"
"Life… finds a way?" Gwen intoned sagely.
Petra considered Gwen's words. Does life find a way? It certainly sounded philosophically aligned with the nature of chaos.
"And there's always the Gila core," Gwen added. "How big did you say this thing is?"
"Lea, give us a look at this thing."
Lea summoned water from between the sodden peat. She roughly constructed a salamander about the size of a semi-trailer.
"That's a huuuge bitch!" Tao blurted loudly.
"That's a huuuge Magic Resistance," Petra observed thoughtfully.
The group fell silent.
"We can probably overpower it with Lightning and Void," Gwen suggested. "From what I could attest with the large Blue Gila, enough damage should make it through."
"It's underground, though." Petra raised an arched brow. "I don't fancy our chances fighting it underwater."
"How about this?" Gwen continued. "We can lure it with something - like the Vitae fruit, and then we can alpha strike it to cut off its mobility."
"That's a bit optimistic," Petra pointed out. "The older the Gila, the smarter. Reds have low cunning like Goblins. When we start seeing Blue ones, you're looking at Hobgoblins. At Green, we're looking at something like Humans. Once we start getting to super rare breeds like Grey or Black Gila, we're looking at ancient intelligence like Elves or Dragons. I doubt an angry, ancient Gila is going to be a dumb animal."
"Think it can use magic?" Mina pointed out. "The green ones can do magic."
"Lea says it's Red," Richard assured her. "We're looking at a mighty bruiser, maybe a tier 6 or so in strength, but tier 8 in anti-magic defence. Let's assume it's intelligent, but not too intelligent. That means we need some serious damage. Gwen? Petra?"
"Well, we got a spare Vitae fruit to act as the lure." Petra pointed out. "How well do you think the Lightning and Void spells work against the Gila?"
"I'd say half strength?" Gwen tried to quantify the resistance of the creatures she'd slain earlier, upscaled for size. "Void will eat away at its body regardless of the resistance, and Lightning can penetrate its slime."
"Right." Petra calculated some numbers in her head. "Okay, say I Spell Cube some of your attacks. We double down on Void while Mina keeps me topped up. Full pre-buff. Two Lightning Tentacles, two Void Tentacles. Double-sets of Warding Bolt and Conjure Storm. We'll potion up after initial buffs, then again at half-tank. I'll make combat platforms on the tree over yonder, well out of reach of that thing. You and Richard to the right, me and Mina to the left. What do you think?"
"We'll need to rest," Gwen advised.
"That works out well." Richard pointed at the watery model of the great beast. "You know, I think I figured out why our guardian didn't show."
"What do you know?" Mina eyed her relative with admiration.
"It's entirely obvious when you think about it." Richard laughed. "It's nocturnal!"
A look of epiphanic realisation washed over the other four companions. Gwen slapped her forehead. Of course, she should have thought of that. She's been to Taronga Zoo many times in her past life. She even did the night tour! Amphibians, particularly creatures of the dark like salamanders, were nocturnal hunters.
"How we gonna bring that huge bitch to the yard?" Tao proposed after a few seconds of contemplation.
"Well." Richard eyed their companion up and down. "You're going to bring it to us…"
“Oh.” Tao’s face turned ashen. “I… I am?”
"Indeed, Peaches." Richard patted the Illusionist on the back. "You too, Fei."
"Me too?" Unlike Tao's fearful consternation, Fei's expression was one of unexpected anticipation.
"Of course!" Richard smirked. "You two are the heart of our plan!"
With the extended time required in preparing Petra's Spell Cubes, the party settled in to rest their minds and bodies.
Gwen volunteered her Portable Habitat, much to Mina's delight, slotting an HDM into the magical device and laying it down at the tree's base.
Each member then found rooms to prepare for the night battle to come. Gwen meditated to recovered her mana, aided by Mina, stoking Almudj's life force to gift herself with a tolerance for Void. Petra carefully cubed Gwen's higher tier spells, reproducing her spell-list in both Lightning and Void.
Richard, meanwhile, sat in the living room, carefully explaining a plan involving Lea and the two Illusionists in their project to lure the Salamander.
When the late afternoon arrived, Lea reported that other Mages parties came to take shelter on the relative dryness of the peat-bog. Having ascertained who and what they were dealing with, Richard sent Gwen and Mina to negotiate with them.
Mina saluted like a good soldier and took Gwen by the hand.
"Come on. You've been cooped up in there cooking up Spell Cubes!" Mina dragged her from her room. "Let me show you how we've been harvesting loot the whole way here."
"Tao, if you please?" Richard was close behind them. "On myself as well. Don't forget to record."
"Invisibility!" Tao incanted the spell twice. It was his favourite spell for Dungeon dives, only now they were using it for Richard's nefarious purposes. If it had been their last dive, Tao would have found his friends, holed up somewhere safe, and refreshed Invisibility until the Dungeon ended.
"What are we doing?" Gwen looked at Richard. Even as an ally, all she saw was a vaguely humanoid distortion.
"We're doing the Lord's work." Richard's voice was secretive and expectant. "Out we go, let's see what we got. Lea, you good?"
"I am in place, Master." Lea's voice came from thin air.
"Let's go!" Mina pulled on Gwen. With a quick tug across the threshold, they were out of the portal and into the Dungeon once more.
"Wo Cao!" another voice, rougher and spoken far less delicately, answered the first. "Just because we're a PUG, don't think you can mess with us!"
"We were here first!" A haughty voice cut through the air. "This groove will shelter the House of Xu tonight, and we do not desire unwanted company, especially one of your foul presence."
Gwen caught the tail end of their conversation as she and Mina appeared from behind the tree, where a depression in the trunks hid the portal Gwen had set up. Pulled by her cousin, they stalked around the circumference of the giant Bayan and found themselves caught in between the two bickering groups.
"Fuck!" Now in range, Gwen's Ioun Stone translated the curse. "Where the hell did you two come from?"
The Mage who spoke was a fat woman with broad shoulders and barrel-waist. She had a voice like a loudspeaker and wore her pigtails like a younger girl, which made her look ridiculous. Behind her were four ragged-looking Mages, injured and exhausted looking, all young men of indistinct attire.
"Indeed, it would almost seem as though you appeared from nowhere." A soft, polite voice came from their left. The speaker was a young man with a sculpted face and bright, intelligent-looking eyes. He was wearing a one-piece mandarin robe that came straight out of 80s Jet Li films. The man's attire was entirely white: white-cloth shoes, white tunic, and white pants. His companions were three other males, likewise clad in white, and a girl who looked to be a PUG member, for she appeared carefully made-up, wearing a minidress that showed off her shapely calves.
"We're lost!" Mina announced with her cute, diminutive voice. "Can any of you help us? We need a safe place to meditate and restore our mana. We've been running from monsters since this morning and manage to shake them just an hour ago!"
Mina's voice sent shivers up Gwen's spine. Her cousin must have foregone the auto-cleaning function of her Sunday dress somehow, for the fabric was a little torn and soiled at the hem. Furthermore, her Roman sandals trailed with wayward mud, marking her shoes with evidence of a panicked escape.
Beside the tragically pretty maiden, Gwen appeared stupefied. She was still wearing her skinsuit, which was charred and marked by their earlier combat. Despite a refreshing Prestidigitation, the suit would need repairs when they returned to Shanghai. Added to the fact that she'd been draining spells for the last four hours to feed Petra's Cubes, she appeared the very picture of a survivor.
The two groups regarded the girls.
"Play along," Richard's voice spoke next to Gwen.
Gwen looked around bewilderingly. Were they doing what she thought they're doing?
"Can… can we help them?" The comely PUG girl with the white-suited Mages reflexively asked her companions, her eyes filled with sympathy.
The leader, the one who spoke, looked toward Gwen doubtingly, narrowing his eyes.
"We'll shelter you!" the other Mage, the burly female, announced confidently, her face pudgy like a smiling Buddha. "Come here, quick!"
Mina took Gwen's hand and joined the pick-up group, tittering with 'panic' as they did so.
When they arrived, however, they were received by wanton and greedy eyes. An atmosphere of repressed mana filled the air, suggesting that these Mages were not the friendly kind that helped a maiden in distress.
"Show me the contents of your ring, and we'll protect you," the burly woman demanded once Gwen and Mina were out of range of the Mages in white. "Those guys over there, you can't trust them. I saw them rob a few juniors only a few hours ago."
"THAT'S BULLSHIT!" the minidress girl shouted across the bog. "They tried to rob me!"
"Ring. Contents. Now!" the barrel-waisted girl-Mage demanded quickly. "They're monsters hereabouts, and they'd take you under the bog sooner than you can say 'regret!'. If you want our protection, it's only natural that you purchase a little faith, hmm?"
"Are… are you robbing us?" Mina demanded angrily. "This isn't fair! As if we have anything to give!"
Gwen almost spat in the fat girl's face. Holy shit. She thought to herself.
"Don't make me shut you up." A gauntlet of stone materialised on the sorceress' forearm. "I'll snap you like a twig. I can see your Storage Rings. Hand them over."
"Never!" Mina snapped, her face full of anguish. "Gwen has a Large Storage Ring! It's priceless!"
The look of avarice on the stout sorceress' face was painfully obvious. Gwen tugged Mina's shirt, requesting that perhaps, she should dial down the charade.
"Won't somebody stop them!" Mina shouted towards the four Mages behind the fat one, who burst into laughter. "What's so funny?"
"What house you from, green-girl?" One of the Mages demanded.
"I've seen you around." Another PUG member licked his eyes over Gwen. "You're that Lightning Sorceress that was at M the other night, right?"
"How dare you take advantage of us when we're OOM!" Mina quickly retorted in case the Mages got cold feet.
Seriously?! Gwen pinched Mina, who shrugged it off and elbowed her in the gut, causing Gwen to keel over.
"She was?" The burly Transmuter-leader shifted her attention to Gwen. "I heard she won two thousand HDMs from the son of the Fung clan just the other night. How dare you lie to us! You said you had nothing!"
Over on the other side, the white-clad Mage began to move.
"Hey, you! Over there! You girls. You can seek shelter with us. We won't harm you nor ask for reparations. I swear it, by the name of the Xujiahui House of Xu."
"PEI!" The burly sorceress spat vehemently at the young man. "Fuck! Who do you think you are, huh? Local land Gods? Here isn't Xijaihui! These girls came to us first, and they're under our protection whether you like it or not!"
"I have no loot to give!" Mina wailed desperately, her eyes full of tearful desperation. "I mean, Gwen has a Creature Core! But we need it. If we come back with nothing, our Dad's will think we're useless!"
What an actress! Gwen applauded internally. What a terrifying girl! Perhaps Mina should focus on theatre. Tao can be the musician, Mina, the actress; they could be the dynamic "entertainment" duo of the Wang family.
The Transmuter's beady eyes lit up. It was a terrifying expression, like watching a lucky Buddha's lips opening to reveal pointed teeth.
"If you know what's good for you…" The greedy Mage was far more focused on the House of Xu's white-clad Mages than Gwen and Mina. Her companions, too, were readying attack spells by front-loading their mana and incantations.
"I… I am not giving you my core!" Gwen tried to follow Mina's suit. Her acting was so wooden, so unnatural, that the effect was immediately immersion breaking.
"You're testing my patience, princess," the Transmuter threatened her with a glare, thinking perhaps that the Dungeon had driven Gwen semi-insane with fright. "Empty your ring, now-"
Gwen felt immense relief when bog finally opened up its maw and swallowed their assailant wholesale. The spontaneous charade was wreaking havoc on her nerves. The Transmuter's four companions, who'd been loading up spells, were likewise taken by the suck of the swamp.
An eerie silence overtook the clearing, then abruptly, four vibrant shields of different elements sprang into existence. The House of Xu was in combat formation, all except their leader, who took on an expression of disbelief.
"Praetor Huang? Is that you?" The leader of the House of Xu suddenly announced to the thin air.
"Yo!" Richard materialised a few meters away. "Now that you mention it, you do have a familiar face."
"Praetor! It IS you! It's me, Julian Xu. Do you remember me?" The Mage called Julian seemed far more excited to have met Richard than worry about their dubious circumstances. It was only when the two shook hands that the tension softened, and their Shields retracted.
"Julian! From Xiaoming Academy? Goodness, it's been two years! How've you been?"
"I am doing well, Senior!" Julian turned to his companions. "This is the man I've told you guys about— Senior Huang from Prince's! He was there at the exchange conference a few years back as the Praetor for Prince's Sydney team. No one got past them that year, remember? And Prince's London branch picked up the Inter-high Cup."
Two of the members mumbled that they did. Another one of Xu's mates worshipfully shook Richard's hand.
The two girls watched the exchange with some surprise, Gwen more so than Mina.
"Anyway, this is my team, Gan, Felix, Gui, and Taiyuan. The girl is a PUG member we picked up. Her name is Felicity Tang."
"I have a few more members with me as well. I'll introduce them later." Richard broke off from the group and told Gwen and Mina to come closer.
"This is Gwen Song, my cousin, and Mina Wang, from the Wang Enterprises."
"It's good to meet you."
"From the one in Huaihai Road?"
"The very same."
"Thank you for offering to help us earlier." Mina bowed slightly.
"I am glad you're both safe!" Felicity Tang quickly ingratiated herself with their noteworthy party. "Senior Richard, it's a pleasure to meet you. May I ask what happened to the other party?"
"You'll have your answer very soon, my dear," Richard quipped, his intelligent eyes glinting. A girl not in the know would have fancied the young man to be flirting with them, but Gwen knew Richard was probably thinking of the Crystals and the CCs. Taking the wrong hint, Felicity edged closer to Richard.
Mina snickered coldly and pushed Gwen toward Richard.
At six-foot-two, Gwen's hips started at the Asian girl's navel.
Felicity's face withered like a trodden orchid.
"It's always nice to meet good guys out here in the Dungeon," Mina said innocently. "Richard, think it's time?"
"Another minute," Richard answered nonchalantly. "So, how're you guys faring so far?"
"Passably," Julian began a tirade of their exploits since entering the Dungeon. Felicity made inane small talk with the girls, hoping to understand who they were. "Although, what do you intend to do with those Mages? Surely you're not thinking of killing them? Why so serious?"
"See for yourself." Richard motioned with a hand. "Lea, bring 'em up!"
The barrel-waisted Mage was in an extra-large satchel of brown liquid, her face blue with asphyxiation. When she landed on the soft peat in a burst of brown water, she let loose a gibbering, bestial torrent of salty gunk from her lips.
The small crowd of Mages regarded the arrogant Transmuter with sympathy. Transmuters could train to breathe in water, but the spell took both time to incant and time to manifest. To be stuck in a water prison and denied the air necessary to cast a life-saving incantation must make an exquisite dilemma.
"I… I forfeit!" the Mage uttered feebly. "Please, no more."
"Excellent choice, my good woman, the contents of your ring to the right—"
A burst of violent Earthen mana burst from the Transmuter's outstretched hand. The embittered Mage must have been holding the spell since her entrapment, for the usually second-long incantation for the tier 3 spell was completed in a split-second.
The sudden change, especially after a forfeiture, was entirely unexpected and had caught Gwen's party off-guard.
Lea was the first to react; her twitch-reflex as an attuned spirit was enough to form a Water-Shield half a meter away from Richard.
It was unfortunate then that the Water Abjurer's shields were weak against the Earth element's brute-force attacks. The stone projectile burst through the transparent barrier and shot toward Richard's surprised face.
It was a mistake made out of hubris. The gathered had thought the Mage a Transmuter only. No one had suspected that she would also be an Evoker or that Evocation may have been her primary school of magic.
"Shield of Faith!" Mina's training had drilled the reflexive reaction into her body. A blooming sheet of light, empowered by Positive energy and pure mana, moved to enveloped Richard.
Gwen, however, had never received formal Abjuration training. Seeing Richard in imminent danger of becoming enveloped in a world of jagged shards, she extended a hand toward the Mage and uttered the first thing that came to mind.
A sword of dark matter sliced through the air and pierced through the Transmuter's Stone Shield. The fat sorceress had been using every ounce of her focus to maintain her assault.
She knew she would get hurt, but no one expects to cop a Void Bolt to the face.
Without sound nor any form of spectacular display, the bolt of Void consumed the sorceress' head, leaving only two pigtails to flutter to the ground.
Above them, her attack fizzled into motes of indistinct mana.
The headless Mage remained unmoving on the ground for a moment more. A second later, from the horizontal cross-section of her neck stump came a gush of arterial blood that soaked the peat-bog, a stream of crimson ejaculating with each pulse of her failing heart.
Gwen stared at her handiwork, a spine-tingling chill working her way up her spine like silver of eldritch frost.
She's dead! Her mind screamed. I just murdered a woman in cold blood!
She felt numb with clarity, as though she'd stepped through a threshold. The Transmuter was not someone who had done her grave injury; she was merely someone she had met no more than five minutes ago! A careless bully and a greedy gut! Now she was a headless corpse bleeding out on the floor! Only a split-second ago, this was a cheating, conniving, scheming human being, fully capable of rationality, possessing the faculty to learn and change! Now she had taken all of that away from this woman, this girl-Mage. Now the girl was just a bag of dead flesh upon the floor! She hadn't just stolen this Mage's life! She'd taken all the potential that her humanity offered the world!
Voices calling out to Gwen seemed to pull her back from the abyss of her own making. Gwen turned to see her companions, who by now had spilt from the Portable Habitat, calling out to her.
"I am…" Gwen wanted to say that she was alright, but she was hardly that. She stumbled backwards and had to be caught by Petra, who hugged her close to her chest. Her heart was pounding like a rabbit in a bag; she wanted to vomit.
"It's fine; she deserved it," Petra praised her, her voice calm and collected. "Good job."
"Yeah, that bitch was asking for it, dawg. I got that shit on Vid-cast!" Tao added his piece, shaking his Lumen-recorder with confidence. "Stone cold! Capped that bitch like a dog!"
"Peaches, shut up! Gwen, please don't feel bad about doing what's necessary," Mina added her own. "Richard could have been injured."
Gwen felt her stomach churn.
Mina had already covered Richard.
They had a healer with them.
At worst, Richard would need some minor healing. If the pair had worked their way across the marsh shearing these men and women of sin, they would have indeed fought off at least a dozen that tried to ambush them by now.
"I… I am—" Gwen tried to catch her breath. She had killed a woman for no good reason. A Mage lost her life because she couldn't hold her horses.
Then a hand took her by the wrist and pulled her away from Petra.
Gwen turned to see Richard's dark eyes gazing upon her with benevolence.
"Richard, I didn't mean… I…" Her mind remained a chaotic jumble of emotions and unbidden horrors. She had only been in Shanghai for six days, and she was already a murderer.
Richard massaged her hands.
"I didn't mean—" She tried to pull away.
To the surprise of all, Richard slapped her across the face.
Gwen felt her anarchic thoughts cease at once. A flush of anger and confusion replaced the immensity of her remorse as her eyes flashed electric and emerald.
"Gwennie." Richard held both of her wrists so that she couldn't move. "Thank you for saving my life."
"GWEN." Richard's voice was like a booming thunderclap; his vice-like grip bruised her tender, white wrists. "You saved my life."
Slowly, she felt the adrenaline drain away, and with it, the chemical hysteria of the blood.
Her eyes fell upon the corpse. From the enormous cadaver came the sighs and murmurings of escaping gases as organs lost their vitality and shed their cargo of liquids. From the stomach to the spleen, the woman's wrecked locomotive shut its valves for the final time, its meat settling into a quivering silence.
A flash of silvery Conjuration appeared not far from the group. Master Hao, the Adjudicator, appeared beside them.
"Mr Huang, I told you that trouble would find you if you persisted," the Senior Mage said.
"I'll take full responsibility," Richard intoned without any emotion of panic nor remorse. "Mr Wang has the whole thing on Vid-Cast. I do believe that we are well within our rights to defend ourselves."
"I'll be the judge of that!" The Adjudicator turned to Gwen. "A Void Mage. It's been a while. How long have they been hiding you?"
"That's on a need to know," Petra interjected before Gwen could answer. "Please take it up with my Grandmother, Director Klavdiya Song of the Second PLA Army Hospital."
"I would like to submit for the record that the House of Xu is in full support of Senior Huang and Ms Song." Julian stepped forward.
"My father is with Villeroy and Wu's," Mina added her piece. "If you want to question Richard or Gwen, I suggest a formal application through our Arbitrator-Solicitor."
The Adjudicator rolled his eyes.
He ignored the junior Mages' threats and chose instead to focus on doing his job. Producing a recording device that hovered over one hand, he took a copy from Tao's recording.
"Retaliation in defence. Unlawful assault after forfeiture by Baiming Shui, independent House from Lishui. Death by single spell decapitation, Void Bolt. Dead on arrival. Dated Sunday, 13th of April, 2003."
After jotting down the details, he turned to the child-Mages. "Goodbye. Try not to kill anyone else."
The Adjudicator was once more gone from their sight.
"Wait!" Richard watched the Senior Mage disappear. "There are four others!"
The Adjudicator did not return.
With Gwen still in her depressed state, the afternoon had lost its festive, relaxed atmosphere. Richard summoned the other four prisoners, took their crystals and their loot, then sent them packing into the distance.
With the current matter now resolved, Petra, Tao and Fei introduced themselves, then Richard accepted the offer of aid and cooperation proposed by Julian. Both parties confirmed the split of the potential loot from the giant Gila, and then members shook on the agreement.
Questioning the members of their new extended party, Petra requested that they submit spells to her cause. Stunned by her breathtaking grace, the men eagerly complied while their female companion, Felicity, sulked.
Gwen sat on a rock, glancing every once in a while toward the body. She became so distracted that Richard opted to just 'disappear' the corpse altogether.
As daylight began to lose its lustre, the group settled into their respective roles. Gwen provided the food, and the conjoined party made the most of the facilities offered by the Portable Habitat. With a helping hand from the girl, Felicity, an eleven-person serving of noodle and SPAM fed the party.
Gwen became surrounded by the sound of slurping and sipping as dinner commenced. Her eyes glanced at the spot where the Lishui Mage had died. Now, only a patch of dried blood remained.
The erstwhile Transmuter's Storage Ring had held a significant loot volume, ranging from exotic flora to small Creature Cores to alien metal. It was a testament to her avarice.
"It is a vile thing to die," Gwen mumbled to herself. "When folk are unprepared and look not for it."
She gazed at her dainty white hands and wondered if she would see the spots of blood. With Void, her's was an implement of murder that left no tales. Still, will all the perfumes of Arabia make her little hands sweet again?
Gwen closed her eyes to rest and saw Faceless' distorted, shapeless mien mocking her hypocrisy.
"I told you we were alike! I told you. Gwen Song. We would be together. One way. Or another."
Gwen suppressed the sickness that rose in her stomach. Her grandmother's words hung in the air.
"There will be no rest. No solace, not even when you're spent and bloody and desire nothing more than to sleep. With your talent, your blood, you will become like a beacon for the Rakshasa, a locus of envy, jealousy, wrath and lust. Can you understand that?"
"You will walk the Path of Violent Reckoning!"
Gwen closed her eyes again and banished the darkness. She circulated Amuldj's mana through her circuits and breathed in, inflating her lungs until they were on the point of bursting, then breathed out.
For now, her companions were waiting, and there was a Gila to be Purged.