The military-issue bodysuit from the PLA was a thing of wonder compared to the mass-produced variety rationed to Gwen by the Melbourne Tower.
Its Hide Presence Enchantment soaked up all scent and sweat, was resistant to heat and cold, and helped her skin breathe through its porous fabric. The suit itself was semi-plated and magically fitted, providing protection for her bosoms and her abdomen. It possessed a stocky collar made from Magi-tech, with a slot for inserting raw or processed HDM crystals.
When she asked her uncle to check her equipment, the soldier's eyes had reflexively widened before uncomfortably looking away. Jun's reaction gave Gwen a smug thrill, knowing that she had paid him back for that ‘too skinny remark’.
“It’s American.” Jun noticed her fiddling for the artificer's tag. “Only the States make stuff like this. They’re known for it.”
The Soundless Boots were of Chinese construct, a copy of the Elven variety known to deaden all sound of the wearer's passage. A fashionista at heart, she noticed that despite its parallel magical qualities, the boots were hideously tailored.
“The CCP tried its best.” Jun shrugged. “For now, our Manufactoriums can only copy, not create.”
The Optic-Camouflage Cloak was the last layer, a Japanese creation. The tag read 'Sumitomo Heavy Industries', sporting a four-diamond petal flower as a logo. Was Japan still a leader in technological innovation? Gwen couldn't help but wonder. She fancied herself visiting Osaka in the future to see how it differed from her old world. The food there was to die for.
With the Cloak activated, Gwen and Jun could spot one another due to an inherent design included in the product, though to un-glyphed outsiders, they appeared as grass, stone, bark, foliage, and all but invisible when remaining still.
“Keep Caliban and Ariel out,” Jun advised. “Apply your Invisibility spell. Get them used to the woods. Ariel should have a scent like most of the creatures here. As for Caliban, I suppose we should be glad that it's scentless.”
“I’ll get it to roll around and pick up the ambient odour," Gwen suggested. A presence without scent was just as notable to the right pair of olfactory organs.
“Sure, we'll be taking some time to get acquainted with the landscape and the fauna.”
The party of four moved out.
Adorable marten, Spawn of Yog-Sothoth, The Severed Tongue of the Lurker in the Dark, Ash Bringer and the Girl who eats, lined up at the tree line formerly known as ‘Welcoming Pine’.
Her uncle rechecked their gear, hinting at the need for caution ahead.
“Alright, let’s go!”
* * *
Jun bunched a fist, raising it beside his ear.
Gwen halted, holding her breath. It wasn’t necessary, but she didn’t know that. Her first foray into a Purple Zone had her walking on tippy-toes as soon as they stepped past the first set of gnarly trees.
The visibility within the mountain was horrendous as expected. The massive cloud bank that moved and shifted with the currents from the Elemental Plane of Air sent down mist and gust almost ceaselessly, pelting the duo with light showers of pine needles that stuck to their garb.
After the first three hours and fifteen-odd kilometres, Gwen understood precisely why the magical equipment was essential.
It was the micro-climate.
The flora of the region consisted mainly of Pinus and Strobus, punctuated by the occasional Magnolia and interrupted by unexpected groves of enormous bamboo. The conifers did not grow straight, but burst from granite outcroppings, twisting and turning like the proverbial dragon until finally erupting into waxy umbrellas of dark jade.
Whenever a wayward gust stirred the leaves, a shower of pelting pine-needles fell upon uncle and niece, sliding from their durability-enhanced cloaks in glistening sheets. When a frequent shower passed through the region, it filled the surrounding area with a freezing mist, one that chilled the bone. Yet, walking through the muggy mist was a warm, wet, and bedraggled affair. Had they not been wearing their American-made bodysuits, the alternating heat of the stifling summer and the cold bursts from the Elemental Plane of Air would have sapped their mortal bodies before long.
Another hour in, they heard the crashing sound of ponderous lumbering.
Their first victim arrived, crawling on all fours.
No, Gwen corrected herself. A pangolin. A draconic pangolin.
“Check it,” Jun commanded.
Gwen incanted a Detect Magic, relying on the suit’s Enchantments to muffle her sound and movement.
The pangolin was six meters long and just over two metres tall. It didn’t look particularly ferocious, though the scales on its back suggested an imperviousness to physical assaults. In the zoology of Gwen's old world, pangolins protected themselves by curling into impenetrable balls. In the cryptozoology of this world, Gwen felt she could assume an educated guess of the same. Indicatively, the ridges on its scales inferred a draconic origin, though it was visually evident that the thing was more pangolin than thorny-drake.
The element that radiated from the creature was a dull ochre.
Too bad, Gwen muttered in disappointment. No lucky first-strike.
“Earthen,” Gwen passed along the silent Message, their devices operating via LOS and radius. If Gwen wished to function as Mayuree had, she would have to take a bridging course, then undergo first-year Divination training.
“Care for first blood, or let it pass?”
Gwen considered Jun's offer. The creature looked reasonably powerful. Maybe Caliban could pick up a new form? Her Void-worm already possessed a lizard-amphibian body-morph though, not to mention Caliban was primarily immune to physical damage, presuming infinite access to vitality. Having armour plating on Caliban was akin to adding nipples to a bat-suit.
“It’s alright.” Gwen felt no desire to kill gluttonously.
They allowed the creature to pass.
“Let’s see where it's going,” Jun suggested. To the experienced survivalist, creatures such as these did not roam without reason. “Follow my lead.”
As a novice tracker, Gwen could only do her best. Her dexterity and natural fitness, combined with purpose-made Magical Items, however, more than made up for her inexperience. Their quarry, likewise, was supremely confident in its safety, paying no heed to Gwen's potential blunders.
The duo pursued the Draconic-pangolin for half a kilometre until it stopped.
There came a sound of buzzing in the air which had been barely audible prior but grew louder as they climbed. As the duo came within visible distance of the pangolin's prize, the winged-thrum grew to encompass every audible spectrum.
The bee-hive - at least that’s what it resembled - was enormous; it hung two-meters tall from zenith to nadir, hanging from the side of a pine-tree with such weight that its growth had yielded to the unwelcome burden. Bees the width and size of two of Gwen's’ fingers caught sight of the pangolin. Within several seconds, they began to swarm.
“We’re in luck.” Jun motioned with a glance. “Wildland Sting-blossoms. Their honey is good enough to extend your life, restore youth. There’s the Queen inside as well, that's what the pangolin is after. We should gather the honey. One portion can be for my mother, the others you can use as gifts. It's a fairly sought-after youth elixir for women.”
“Sounds good, anything for Babulya! So, do we keep watch for now?”
“For now, yes. When the time comes, we have to intercept it before it eats the Queen.”
“Are we saving it?” Gwen hadn’t figured Jun for an entomological conservationist.
“… You’re going to eat it.” Jun was likely smiling underneath the cowl.
Meanwhile, the pangolin languishingly strolled toward the nest, possessing no consideration for the thousand or so bees swarming its face, eyes, and nose.
“Its got armoured eyeballs?” Gwen marvelled at the resilience of the creature.
“Probably immune to poison too, Draconic-constitution.”
The Pangolin stood on its rear two legs, climbed the nest, then began to pound away at the shell-case exterior. Great chunks of sticky honey fell from the nest in golden globs, filling the air with a sickly sweetness. Watching the spectacle, Gwen felt nostalgic for the running commentary of a certain British Naturalist.
“Hmm, this is not good.”
Jun urged Gwen to remain hidden. He pointed a finger upward.
The Pangolin’s efforts continued unabated.
A rustling sound came from a tree-top.
The two looked up to see a feathered silhouette outlined against the mist-diffused sky. Gwen adjusted her magic. It took a great deal of concentration to focus Detection spells in a place like this.
“Air!” she informed her Uncle, her void eager and hungry.
“Good for us, but wait and see,” Jun advised. “We need to ground it with Void or Ash; it’s likely highly resistant to Lightning. It's interested in the nest, likely the Queen itself.”
Jun’s hypothesis proved correct.
The pangolin too noted the intruder. It turned to the bird-like creature and began to bark.
The bird ignored it. As far as it was concerned, the terrestrial-bound pangolin was harmless.
What a waste of a draconic-bloodline, Gwen grumbled. At least have a dragon-breath or something. How unimpressive.
Without a reply from the bird-thing, the pangolin returned its attention toward to the nest and continued digging. By now the bees were in a frenzy. Had Gwen not seen the process, she would have thought the pangolin naturally armoured with a buzzing layer of black-yellow chitin.
“It’s making a move, get ready. Lightning Sphere on the bees. Avoid the nest. Void on the pangolin, go for the eyes. I’ll clip the flyer.”
The avian silhouette began to move.
When the bird creature came into view, Gwen realised it was a winged lizard. The spectacle of the chimeric-creature was as strange as it was awe inspiring. The scales were rainbow-hued, a dark oily obsidian with a petrol-sheen. Its wings were like that of the Macaw, a burst of brilliant emerald and vibrant orange, with just a touch of cobalt at the tip.
It swooped for what Gwen could only assume was the exposed Queen.
To their surprise, the pangolin was waiting for it.
Clever bastard! Gwen’s lips parted in surprise. The stupid looking, ponderous pangolin launched a glob of honey toward its assailant! The delicious golden liquid caught the lizard entirely by surprise, smacking it face first, sending it crashing against the ground.
Suddenly, the bees that had made their new nest on the pangolin’s hide found a new target.
“Good God!” Gwen grimaced. The lizard was instantly carpeted in bees with stings the size of surgical needles. She didn’t need to be a biologist to know that the rainbow-bird-lizard did NOT have armoured eyes.
“Huuu huuu huuu…”
The pangolin laughed. IT WAS LAUGHING!
FUCK, Gwen thanked the Gods for her uncle. It was fucking intelligent! The fucking thing was sapient! What did that mean? Should they abort?
“Well, that kicks it up a tier or two.” Jun seemed relieved they had waited as well. “We’re swapping targets. I am on the Pangolin. You take care of the bees. As for the Queen, you’ll have to retrieve it by hand. Use your Void Skin; your gear should be elementally-shifted.”
The pangolin turned back to the hive.
A bolt of white ash struck the creature’s head, hitting it just below the right eye. There was a sickening crunch as the armour plating crumbled, filling its head with negative energy.
The pangolin slumped, losing all interest in the nest. The unique attribute of the Plane of desolation and destruction sapped its will. It turned around apathetically, barely curious as to what had penetrated its scaly dermis. It wanted to flee, but its instincts were brutally suppressed.
Blasts of necrotic fire, burning invisibly, consumed its limbs until only stumps remained. The pangolin fell on to its belly, barely bothering to move, patiently awaiting death.
Gwen meanwhile, stepped into the open, clad in midnight.
She moved like tenebrous ink, her feminine figure shifting with the alien articulation of ferrofluid. A frenzied swarm left the lizard and assaulted her as she approached. When the bees made contact, a sizzling sound of corrosion signalled the futility of the insect’s actions. Gwen’s Void skin wasn’t enough to stop Lulan's blows, but it was perfect against swarms.
After the first two hundred kamikaze strikes, Gwen could feel her vitality stores beginning to falter. These were large and heavy insects, and they kept on coming relentlessly. The good news was that she had future provisions on hand in the form of a lizard and a limbless pangolin.
She reached the nest, crushing mounds of half-consumed bee-corpses underfoot, stepping over the paralysed pangolin.
There she was, the Queen. It was easily distinguishable by its golden buttocks, aflame with whatever insects passed for hair.
Jesus Christ, Gwen felt her skin crawl. The bee-monarch was the length of her hands-span! She reached out with a blackened arm as the buzzing intensified. The dive-bombing of the bees continued, covering the floor with carcasses.
“Erect a half-dome Shield, keep the workers at bay, then eat the Queen,” Jun compelled her.
Gwen knew her uncle meant 'eat' in the literal sense.
Channel Bear Grylls, she told herself. You are Bear Grylls. He can do it. You can do it. It’s just a-
The Queen writhed in her hand, its abdomen curled suddenly; a pale-white egg ejaculated from its ovipositor. The creature’s compound eyes regarded Gwen’s Void-smothered, featureless mien with insectile eyes begging for mercy. She could let it go, but this wasn't that sort of adventure. She wasn't here to Disney Princess. Gwen was here to eat.
Gwen retreated the portion of Void Skin protecting her face.
Goodbye! Sweet sanity! Fare thee well, noble Queen! She took her supplement like a bitter pill. The queen was stingless, but it was too large for her mouth. Gwen had to take it in recurring bites.
Jesus FUCK! It’s feeling it now! Gwen forced herself to chew. The innards exploded, filling the cavern of her mouth with the thankful scent of royal honey. She munched and munched, dreaming of deep-fried soft shell crabs with salt and pepper.
* * *
Gwen must have drunk about a litre of water as they waited for the bees to disperse.
When finally the last bee wandered off, the two collated their loot.
Jun stowed a dozen portions of the honey, ate a length of honeycomb, then cleansed the area with Ash.
Her Familiars gluttonously polished off the remaining molasses, with Ariel stuffing its mouth pouches full of the sticky liquid while Caliban took up entire slabs: dirt, bee and all, sliding whole lattices into its bottomless maw.
“Let’s test your hypothesis.” Jun checked their misty surroundings. Visibility remained poor. "Time for a Lightning-affinity boost."
“Caliban, enough playing, it's time to work!”
Caliban came slithering forth, slathered with honey.
The winged-lizard, disappointingly, turned out to be a unique species. Lacking the resilience of the dragon-kin, it had unfortunately perished in the bee’s assault, having had its eyes and soft-parts pumped full of venom.
Jun flipped the thing over. He sliced it open only to find a shattered core of no value.
"Well, that's a shame," he apologised. "Maybe we should have moved sooner. Too much caution and one may miss out on potential opportunities."
Beside the corpse of the winged-lizard, the pangolin watched the two humans without any emotion nor distress. Until the Negative Energy drain from Jun’s Ash faded, it would remain utterly indifferent, disinterested in anything and everything.
When the female human touched her hand to the pangolins' snout, it didn’t even both to snap nor bite, merely regarding her with deadened orbs awaiting death.
“Uncle, this is the effect of all Ash attacks?”
Gwen couldn’t help but be curious, thinking of when Huashan Elder who had been struck by Jun’s Disintegrate. He too had seemed to have lost all will for living.
“Indeed.” Jun inclined his chin in affirmation. “As one of the four Negative Quasi-elementals, Ash removes an individual's seven passions and six desires. I too would have been been deadened to the world as well, were it not for the Kirin Amulet. Ash users are often correlated with Void Mages, though our malady tends to be of the mind rather than the body.”
“Are there others like you, Uncle? Ash Mages, I mean.”
“Oh yes,” Jun answered. “The ones who survive have all found ways to deal with the side-effects, one way or another. Unlike Void Mages, we have an abundance of time. An insensible, uncaring Ash Mage can still be studied. They make excellent specimens, considering how little they care about their wellbeing.”
The two sat for another half an hour or so, waiting for more scavengers.
“Right, I guess nothing interesting is going to show up. Let’s finish up. Not bad for our first day. At least we found a Draconic-Something.”
Gwen regarded the Draconic-pangolin. The creature regarded its captors.
“Steel your resolve, Gwen.” Jun gave her a prod on the shoulder. “This thing escapes, we’re both going to be hunted until we get back to Shanghai.”
“Sorry, big guy,” Gwen apologised to the pangolin. “Caliban, you’re up.”
Her serpent performed its terrible duty, starting at the tail. Inch by inch, like a python working its way up the body of a saltwater croc, her creature slid its victim into its gullet. Empathically, Gwen could feel that Caliban was enjoining its meal very much.
When finally only the head of the pangolin remained, it suddenly appeared to have regained some of its lost lucidity. The Ashen mana must have worn off.
A sudden look of fear and desperation entered its eyes.
An enormous sound emerged from its lips, echoing through the mist and bouncing off the trees.
IT CAN SPEAK?!
"Kill it now!" Jun commanded.
"FOO! SIA KIN WI-"
“Caliban!” Gwen jolted her familiar with a shot of vitality.
Caliban convulsed, the engorged body of the Void serpent expanded suddenly outward, then violently contracted; the motion was enough to pull the rest of the pangolin into Caliban's maw.
“Daomei!” Jun pulled the cloak over his head. “Dismiss Caliban. Cloak up. We got to get moving. Send Ariel out to scent up the place.”
Caliban’s carapace clicked shut.
"What did it say?"
Jun uncle shook his head. It wouldn't help Gwen to let her know that it had said 'spare me!' before threatening them.
Receiving no confirmation from her uncle, Gwen dismissed her Void-worm, called for the gluttonous Ariel, then activated her cloak.
The vitality-hit came a moment later. On the Nephres-index, she would register it as a six, just enough to keep her disabled but conscious.
“I’ll need about 5 minutes,” Gwen spat out between clenched teeth, her face turning the colour of beetroot as waves of vitality battered her Astral and Physical Body. “The life-force of this thing is enormous!”
Her uncle laid her down beside him and covered the both of them with his optic-cloak, forming the shape of a lichen-covered boulder.
Ariel helped by dashing here and there, leaving its scent to confuse potential pursuers. As a creature of Air and Positive energy, Ariel’s trail of lightning residue would hide the presence of its human masters. When the marten was half a kilometre away, Gwen retrieved her familiar. She couldn't move, but she could do that at least.
Uncle and niece thus waited, Gwen's breath coming in quick bouts.
The answer to their opportunistic ambush came in the form of a thunderous swooping. A vast shadow covered the area of the now ravaged nest, after which a serpentine drake alighted. Gwen couldn’t help but stare despite the pangolin's draconic-essence pouring in, sending her mind into a pleasure-induced tailspin.
The intruder hovered midair with the grace of a falling feather, its wings churning not wind, but Elemental Air itself. It then landed tail first, balancing its overlong frame before touching down, whereupon the sinuous length of its rear legs coiled to take the weight of its body.
An Amphiptere? No, Jun ran the strangely shaped creature through his internal bestiary. A Wyvern. The Amphiptere did not possess any limbs and resembled more so a winged serpent. This thing had two pairs of hind legs and bat-wings that could be folded to support the fore of its body.
As for Gwen, what she found alarming wasn’t so much the size of the creature nor its imposing presence.
It was that the draconic-wyvern was a mount.
The rider looked to be a bona fide Dragon-kin, a rare offspring between a humanoid and a dragon. Invariably, these dragon-men were the result of females coupling with draconic-beings. Unlike the egg-producing reptilian partners, mammalian creatures rarely if ever survived the child-bearing agony of gestating a child far more substantial, powerful and more demanding than that which the mother’s physiology could bear.
How could a womb of warm flesh survive a child of teeth and claw? How does a mortal mother provide the necessary essence and nutrients for an offspring who would outlive its birther by magnitudes measured in centuries?
The alternative was likewise unthinkable. A dragon kind, subjecting itself to be impregnated by a lesser creature? Unheard of!
Jun studied the Demi-human Dragon with every attention to detail.
It stood just over three meters, with pearlescent scales more serpentine than draconic. That was expected, for the Yinglong was a creature of the air. Only terrestrial Dragons favoured heavy plating. The thing’s face had a casual sophistication about it, a smooth reptilian head ending in an elegant snout. As for whether it was male or female, it was impossible to tell, egg-laying creatures seldom needed enlarged hips, and certainly no need for mammalian glands.
His niece convulsed, her chest rising and falling violently.
Furrowing his brows, Jun gently placed a hand onto his niece's diaphragm, then channelled into her channels a sliver of Ash-tainted mana.
Beneath her uncle's calloused hand, Gwen felt her interminable ‘pleasure’ abruptly cease. It wasn’t tranquillity per se, for that in itself was a pleasure. Her ‘quiet’ felt akin to an estranged form of despair, the kind which made one devoid of all desire.
Such was the power of the Ash Mage; an assault that was both mental and physical, peerless against any sentient creature capable of longing and agitation. Unlike the gluttonous Void, the Plane of Ash was a place where not even death could linger; it was the world after the bomb, a world of eternal fallout. Its casters exchanged their human condition for power, the higher the affinity, the lesser one felt the sensibilities of human pathos.
Her uncle was right. Such a power couldn’t exist without a counterbalance. Jun was defrauding the system, and there would be a reckoning. For Gwen, paralysed and her thoughts clarified by apathy, she wondered whether the old Gwen had paid the ultimate price in her stead.
Seeing the girl's lips parting, Jun lifted his hand from her abdomen and cupped her mouth, reminding Gwen to remain still.
No more than fifty paces from where they took the guise of granite boulders, the pearlescent dragon-kin was rubbing the ashen mixture of dirt, honey, and dead insects between its scaly fingers. Its eyes were aglow with what Jun could only assume to be Divination magic. Unlike Humans, Dragons attained abilities with age and bloodline, and could likewise train in almost any form of magic, be it Human Spellcraft or Demi-human, they were the apex existence in a world of creatures immeasurably more powerful than humanity. Where it not for their loathing of each other and their few numbers, the world would have turned into the Dragons' plaything.
As for their optic-obfuscation, Jun was confident in the Japanese artificer's craft. When static, the Transmutation Enchantment transformed the surface layer into lichen and stone; it was only in motion that Illusion came into play, exposing the wearer to keen eyes and low-level Divinations.
“I smell human equipment,” The wyvern spoke through rows of dagger teeth. "Ayxin, you see anything?"
Jun heard the speech in Common; he had come equipped with a Ghost-spec Ioun Stone.
“Si keefum munthrek equip, Ayxin, re wux ocuirir??”
Gwen's ears registered a syllabic string of what sounded like Cantonese mixed with tongue clicks and a hacking cough. Unable to comprehend their new circumstance, she closed her eyes and focused on circulating her new-found draconic vitality, willing it to release her body.
“We lost one of our young ones. I think was Angkar-Molis; this is his domain.”
"Bah, a weakling of no import."
The one who scoffed was the wyvern. Tyrian-purple scales covered its tree-trunk, serpentine neck. On its massive head, over its eye-ridge, a few bright cobalt feathers jutted from its horn-ridge, giving it a refined dignity. Its eyes were hungry and cruel, a single reptilian slit that scanned their surroundings hungrily, a dark gash amidst the sky-blue iris.
A Thunder Wyvern, Jun noted apprehensively. A mature adult, likely sitting between tier 9 and 10.
The creature was the jackpot Jun and Gwen had sought, though he had no hopes for its subdual. Plausibly, it could go toe to toe with him without breaking a sweat - or as the case may be - without losing a scale. For a while, they would be evenly matched, but Jun was confident he would eventually win out if he liberally consumed the stowed essence in the Amulet.
“The Queen’s gone.” The pearlescent one called Ayxin kicked what remained of the bee's nest. “Lots of human magic residue here. I don't know though, something's not right. Angkar’s a resilient child, I would have expected more collateral damage.”
“He was a pup.” The wyvern cocked his head arrogantly. Jun wasn’t sure, but the feathers did make it seem female. "Now likely someone's armour."
“Don’t be like that.” The humanoid Dragon-kin gave his mount a cold look.
The two wanted to linger for longer, check the area, but a shift in the wind meant the region would soon be smothered by fog and mist. Watching the haze thicken, the two made one last round through the site.
“Let’s return to the peak,” the pearlescent one advised.
“You’re not going to…?”
The humanoid dragon-kin mounted the wyvern without a word. The pair took flight amidst a great bell-beat of bat-like wings twenty meters from tip to tip.
Jun felt for Gwen’s pulse. The girl was holding steady in her meditation, milling away his Ashen mana. Instead of moving, he remained still, entering a meditation of his own. He had time, and he had his suspicions.
The one known as Ayxin was good, but the wyvern was a terrible actor.
After a few minutes, there came the sound of beating wings from above them.
The wyvern snorted.
“See? Told you. So much for that prized head of yours."
“… shut up, Golos.”
The sound of wingbeats faded once the wyvern reached the necessary altitude, where it caught a slipstream of Elemental Air.
Jun smirked to himself. The mind of a dragon was formidable, but the mind of a man was far more suitable to ploys and schemes. As creatures of absolute power, it was difficult for the dragons to position themselves from the perspective of the meek.
Underneath him, Gwen raised her head and shoulders, putting herself onto her elbows.
“How do you feel?” Jun asked.
“Wonderful.” His niece met his eyes, her hazel eyes more amber than he recalled. “On top of the world.”