Jun suggested they penetrate deeper into the Yinglong's territory before extracting to an outer region to lay low; it would both throw off their pursuers' expectations and provide opportunities to Consume higher-order lifeforms.
"Resource raids are the norm here," Jun explained to Gwen as she stretched, too full of energy to remain static and standing. "There are no resonance crystals between here and Hefei, the capital of the Anhui Frontier, or any surrounding regions. When tensions are high, it's a free for all."
"That means we won't cause a stir?"
"No, not if we remain discrete. There should be thousands of beasts like the one you just Consumed. So long as we avoid the pure-bloods, like that talking duo, I doubt the Yinglong would care." Jun inspected Gwen's gear again. The next portion of their poaching adventure would be doubly more dangerous, and any equipment failure would result in mission failure. "Let's find a place to rest for the night. You still need to process the Queen's latent life-essence."
At the mention of the poor insect, Gwen forced down her priceless cargo even as the revolting remembrance threatened to expel the Queen's mangled carcass. Soft-shell crab, Gwen told herself, nori-avocado wrapped in sushi rice from Sushi Hub down on George St.
"It'll do you good." Jun watched her throat bobble. "A creature capable of spawning tens of thousands of younglings almost indefinitely until its death, imagine the primal essence contained in something like that!"
Gwen would prefer not to imagine anything.
As night fell, the temperature dropped considerably. Even sheltered by their bodysuits, Gwen felt a chill permeating her skin.
The two reached a sheltered outcrop and then employed Transmutation magic to form an isolated one-meter escarpment unreachable by creatures without considerable arboreal or flying capabilities.
Gwen set up her Portable Habitat, then laid down a Lightning-based Faithful Hound. The subtle mana signature would not seem out of place, giving them plenty of warning to buff up before clearing out.
Once inside, the duo finally relaxed. The need for constant vigilance had niece and uncle walking on a tightrope all day.
Gwen freed her Familiars into the living room. She had grown accustomed to their presence. Caliban coiled up under the coffee table to contemplate its next meal while Ariel raced around the Habitat in a frenzy, scenting every inch of its new abode.
"Can you cook?" Jun checked the pantry and the cooler, finding both empty. Kusu had meticulously cleaned the cottage before returning it to Gwen. "I've got military rations if you can't."
Gwen produced a small mountain of Korean Instant-Noodles and a dozen cans of Spam.
Jun regarded the volume of 'food' presented in front of them.
"Military rations it is. We'll hunt and forage something edible tomorrow."
Gwen hadn't wanted to trouble Jun with domestic duty, but her woeful home economics prevented her from exercising feminine bewitcheries. She could strut, she could kick ass, and she could talk, but cook? Neither of her life in either world was equipped for culinary craftsmanship. She forgot to turn off a boiling pot of pasta water once. Two hours later, the plastic on the lid caught fire. She became henceforth known by her neighbours as the woman who could set water on fire.
"Go freshen up. Run a Cleansing cube over your gear." Jun then ran a hand across the length of the table and produced a dozen silvery packets without labels.
"Those are?" Gwen eyed the bars.
"Military rations," Jun announced. "Tonight, we're having Aurok Stroganoff, Shandong Chicken, Coconut Rice, and Custard Pudding."
Oh. My. God. Gwen glanced at her mountain of Spam. There exist ready-to-eat Military Rations that could be heated up with magic and immediately consumed. What the hell am I doing? Why didn't anyone teach this at the University?
"It'll take a few minutes to plate them, go. I'll find us cutlery."
Gwen retreated from the living room, feeling better that Jun didn't have to waste more time.
Perhaps a little inconsiderately, she took the main bedroom without thinking. Once inside, she unhooked the cloak from her neck, inspected the fabric for damage, and tucked it on a wall hanger. The bodysuit was harder to remove. Even with the zipper down, a contortionist's level of flexibility was required to disrobe.
Would it be too much to ask her uncle? God, that would be awkward.
Suddenly, she slapped herself on the forehead.
An ingenious Mage Hand solved her problem, allowing her second skin to be productively peeled.
She turned to the mirror doors of the built-in cupboard to inspect her post-draconic Consumption body.
To her hypercritical eyes, her unusually pallid complexion appeared to have acquired a warmer hue; she slowly twirled, arching her neck, inspecting any nooks and crannies for scaly growth. Very carefully, she studied her eyes. The most evident change to a Mage's physiology almost always began with the irises.
Like her flushed dermis, her amber-speckled emerald irises appeared warmer. Gwen wondered if there was something particular about Draconic Essence that paralleled the effect of Druidic Essence.
Satisfied, she took a long shower.
Her Decanter of Infinite Water had been left in the Habitat some time ago, providing the place with hot and cold water. Gwen towelled off, then slipped something comfy. She exited.
Outside, Jun had finished making food.
On her plate was a strange collection of multi-coloured gloop.
There was a brown one.
And an orange one.
And a white one.
A small dish held what looked like cold custard.
There was no fork and no knife.
A spoon had been placed next to her plate.
Gwen looked around, bewildered by the lack of solids.
What the hell was this? She checked the oven. Was there food in there waiting to be heated up? Where was the Auroch Stroganoff Shandong Chicken? Don't tell her the gloop was—
The door to the secondary bathroom opened. Jun emerged with wet hair.
"Dig in if you're hungry!" Jun indicated to her plate, a second towel hung over one shoulder.
"Sorry, Uncle, I didn't mean to take the main bedroom."
For a few seconds, Gwen forgot all about the un-food.
Where her Father had an arguably well-formed masculine frame, Jun's looked like something chiselled out of marble and then put into a museum. Even with a t-shirt, his skin was stretched taut across every detail like an anatomic model of human musculature.
He had no scars, which was a shock. Then again, knowing their babulya was close at hand, it was unlikely the good son would be without cosmetic care.
Gwen looked down.
She had snapped her wooden spoon.
"That's some impressive grip strength. Did the Draconic Essence increase your physical abilities?" Her uncle studied her. "You're growing up quite quickly."
After a half-laugh, a new spoon was proffered by her uncle, who watched Gwen with amusement.
The matter then turned to dinner.
"Let's dig in!"
Her worst fears came true. Indeed, the gelatinous gruel was the military rations; it was real food, powdered, remixed with purified water, and filled with nutrition and vitality. But for a girl who had spent the last six months eating herself to death in one of the most food-obsessed cities in the world, it was torture.
After dinner, Jun placed his elbow on the table.
"Wrestle me," His dark eyes gleamed. "I want to see if you've got stronger."
Gwen obliged by taking her uncle's hand.
The two seesawed back and forth, with Jun gauging her strength.
"Pretty strong," He remarked. "Stronger than your average male Cadet, I'd say."
"Do you think this strength is permanent?" Gwen enquired. What if she became incredibly strong? A semi-permanent Enhanced Ability could do wonders. "Would I become stronger the more Draconic Essence I consume?"
"Maybe, you might experience some physical changes, though. You did say your Cleric Aura came and went when Nephres' vitality was spent, right?"
"Well, you have to understand the distinction between Vitality and Essence," Jun commented. "Vitality is the life force, an abstract concept we don't understand. Only experts like Mother have insight into how it manifests independently like a resource. On the other hand, I can tell you about Essence."
Gwen touched the space between her collarbones, where her amulet had once sat.
"Magister Wen said that my Druidic Essence is an arcane-compound spell shaped by a Mythic being's will and intent."
"And she's right. Though in my experience, I favour an older, more obsolete term. It's the soul of a being."
"The soul." Gwen felt a few goosebumps engender. She thought of Mark Chandler's ghostly sister. Her insane screaming went on and on.
"Or something like it. As we know, Essence is neither mana, vitality, nor element. If so, what could it be?"
Gwen had no answer to that.
"Well, no use worrying. Just letting you know how it is. You're human. Nephres Zalaam was human. That sapient Draconian was certainly not a human being. When you take in so much alien Essence, there are bound to be some changes. I mean, didn't Almudj's Essence change your physiology?"
What if she OD'ed on Dragon juice? Gwen wondered. Am I going to start hoarding gold and kidnapping young maidens? Having Elvia to herself in a castle wasn't too bad. She could invite her friends, build a Tower, and have a slumber party.
"As for your strength, I'd wager it's not permanent. It's a nice temporary buff, though. I am interested to see how long you can keep it. In prolonged conflicts, an ability to acquire certain traits could trivialise certain disadvantages and obstacles. Oh yes, speaking of morphic essences, can Caliban turn into a pangolin yet? That would be something!"
Gwen called for her serpent.
"Can you do it? Caliban?" Gwen focused on the image of the pangolin they had seen earlier. "Do the pangolin?"
"Shaa?" Caliban rolled onto its belly and wiggled.
"Caliban! Pangolin!" Gwen pictured the creature ponderously moving through the woods.
"Shaa?! Shaa!" Caliban performed a bellyflop. The feeling she got from their Empathic Link was that it understood.
Its carapace contracted.
Caliban regurgitated a jagged, egg-like shard of crystal in burnt amber. The pangolin Core.
"Oh, very nice!" Jun retrieved the Core and scraped away the grey goo. After a moment, he disappointingly shook his head. "No Spirit. Sorry."
"No worries," Gwen dismissed her uncle's unrealistic expectations. Most people struggled to see a Core, much less a Spirited Core.
"Still, it is worth quite a bit." Jun hefted the crystal in his hand. "Tier 5 core like this, Draconic lineage—25,000 HDMs? More if there's the right buyer. It would probably make an incredible Elemental Bangle for the right Earthen Mage. More funds for University?"
"Surely, you'll take a cut, Uncle."
"What am I going to do with crystals?" Jun scoffed. "Is this a bribe?"
"I am a government official and an officer of Internal Security." Jun tossed her the Core. "It'll do me no good. For a man in my position, austerity is security. You know a girl from the House of M, right?"
"Problem solved. Do that thing you do, and shout me a few fancy dinners if you feel bad about it."
Gwen bit her lower lip thoughtfully.
Caliban wagged its tail, expecting praise for doing the 'pangolin'. Still caught up in her contemplation, its Master retrieved it bodily, then gave it a mighty squeeze. Caliban exerted a squeal of gleeful pleasure as its carapace split, oozing a joyful grey goo.
"Eeee!" Ariel raised a paw in protest; it received Gwen's apology in the form of a belly rub.
Caliban objected and hissed at Ariel. Its brother had done nothing today! It deserved nothing! The marten nipped the serpent in return.
"No!" Gwen scolded both of them. "Down! Hand! Roll over! Kisses!"
She ran through the routine Chen had taught her. Nightly discipline was not to be missed, and she had already skipped a few nights thanks to their travel time. For a Creature Mage, obedience from Familiars must be active and subliminal.
Jun watched his niece toy with her creatures. "You know, it's strange that you would treat your Familiars with such familiarity. In our doctrine, most Conjurers saw Familiars as little more than phenomena manifested from the spell of the same name. Those in the PLA especially often used Familiars as spell-fodder."
"They're my babies," Gwen grinned.
Jun shrugged. Then sat on the couch. Gwen soon joined him. There was no Vid-Cast and no fireplace, but the antics of the two Familiars provided plenty of entertainment.
Was this what a family was like? Gwen wondered. She thought of Hai, of the girls that Hai dated and more than often left in tears. She did not want to think about her mother.
Her uncle turned to regard her. Gwen grew strangely aware that she was a young woman, a lonely one. Watching her uncle's gentleness, Gwen reminded herself that she was Hai's daughter, not his. "Are you alright, uncle?"
"I am fine," Jun murmured, averting her curious gaze. The man studied the ceiling for a moment, then patted her head. "Sleep early. You've got a Queen Bee to digest. Remember, we're leaving at first light."
The all-powerful presence of the Yinglong atop Lotus Peak shrouded the Draconic Palace with miasma and mana, illusion and obfuscation, making its location impossible to scry even with the most powerful of Divination magic.
"Angkar is dead, Father. His presence is gone."
An eye opened within the uncertain mist, enormous, almost the size of Ayxin's torso.
"The Earthen child, Father. He was born two decades ago, blessed by the permeation of your Essence into our land."
The Yinglong exhaled a stream of vapour.
The single-slit pupil within Yinglong's eye made Ayxin shiver. What emotion was engendered there? Not even after two centuries could Ayxin tell. He had arrived to serve his Father at the behest of his Clan, but that had been a lifetime ago. He didn't even know if his relatives still existed. Likely not, as humans were woefully short-lived. The world had changed drastically since then; the Humans world especially had transformed more abruptly in the last fifty years than it had for the previous five hundred.
The silence proved too oppressive for Ayxin to bear.
"He was weak, Father, but he was one of us. Another decade and he would have gained the ability to metamorph himself. You need to—"
The white-jade palace, an enormous cavern of granite smoothed out by the wind until it was pearlescent and achingly beautiful, shook as Ayxin's Father extended a limb.
An eagle's claw with serpent's scales, adorned by brilliant cobalt-emerald peacock feathers, solidified from the mist, its foreclaw as tall as Ayxin himself.
Ayxin knelt to kiss the claw, then prostrated himself.
"Please admonish me for presuming your wishes, Father."
"You will assume your original form until the culprits are brought before me for questioning. One wonders what it is about the matriarchal lineage that you loathe."
An ill-humoured punishment. Ayxin tried not to let the displeasure reach his, or as it were—her face. A true spawn of the Yinglong, Ayxin could change her gender at will. Both forms had advantages and disadvantages, though as their Father preferred the male form, so did all of his children. Therefore, assuming the female form showed others that Ayxin was in disfavour. It further attracted unwanted attention from the lower ranks, especially those whose intelligence was tied to their mortal lineage. When Ayxin was a wyrmling, she had spent decades as a female. There had been yearly contests to woo her, as the humans would put it, a futile endeavour which gave Ayxin a feeling of ambivalence. Dragons were wanton by nature, though Ayxin had found no one worthy to bear her brood.
"If it pleases you, Father."
Outside, Golos was waiting for her. He was surprised to see Ayxin in her fairer humanoid form.
The Thunder Wyvern was one of the foremost powerful creatures within her Father's demesne, though his intelligence made him a blunt instrument.
"You looking to lay?" Golos tilted its head, mocking her.
Ayxin's response was glacial.
"I am right here," Golos smirked with teeth. "I told you we should have stayed put. Angkar was a snivelling fool, the heavens will not rain for his passing, and the earth will not shake. He was an insect, nothing more."
Ayxin gnashed her pearly teeth. Her siblings felt nothing for each other. If so, why was she bothered? Was it because of the lesser half of her heritage? Was that why she was prone to these sentimentalities?
"We're going on patrol!" Ayxin declared annoyedly. She would have to give Golos another sound thrashing if he tried anything. Her half-brother combined the worst of Draconic chimaeras: the savagery and impulse of the lascivious Thunder Wyvern and the prideful, compulsive desire of the Winged Dragon.
"I am hungry," Golos complained.
She looked toward the palace, where her Father had slumbered since immemorial. Before Ayxin was born, her mother...
The pearlescent dragon-kin shook her head, swallowing her all too human feelings.
She had wondered about Father's original mate, the first of her line. But all that was left was the dusty dowry, an Emperor's tithe, a time-faded silkscreen painting composed before the humans learned to recreate personages realistically. Ayxin's name was also unique amongst her siblings, consisting of a human syllable in place of the draconic tongue. "Ay" was Draconic for air. Its homophone meant "love". The second syllable, "Xin", derived from the Human language, read as "prosperity"; it was formed from three pictograms for "gold", though according to her Father, the archaic phonic was "xùn"— meaning vessel.
So she was a vessel of air? Or was her name a phonic for love and prosperity? Or maybe, she was a Lover's Vessel?
That possibility was too crude and morbid to entertain.
"I could do with a dozen goats," Golos reminded his half-sibling. In Golos' mind, she spent far too much time thinking and far too little time eating and doing what came naturally to dragons. "Maybe a carp. Think Ryxi dares to complain?"
Ignoring the wyvern's grievances, Ayxin mounted her half-brother. She dug her claws into his flanks, striking sparks from the azure scales. Golos grunted, then lifted into the air. Once he reached a viable altitude, his wings unfurled, running their full length, bristling with bright feathers. For the spawns closest to their progenitor's bloodline, reptilian scales and bright plumage featured prominently.
Finding the Humans would be difficult, assuming they had not retreated. They were diminutive beings, their presence almost negligible.
She would return to Angkars' demise and try her best to retrace any tracks.
Uncle and niece were up just before the first light.
Gwen hadn't slept a wink, though she was abuzz with energy.
True to Jun's prediction, her body had begun to absorb the vitality held captive within the Queen Bee. She could feel her Druidic Essence activate mote by mote, multiplying rapidly until its primal fecundity was spent. Sweating profusely and unable to sleep, Gwen sat on the bed and meditated until the alarm went off.
"You're looking refreshed," Jun pointed out.
Gwen told him about her swell of Druidic Essence.
"Good," her uncle congratulated her. "We should not forsake any potential paths you could take to master your Void abilities."
Gwen thanked her uncle. "Where do we go from here?"
"We head towards Lotus Peak. The higher we go, the more likely we will find something with lightning as its base element. We'll camp out until we can capture something, ideally several things, then immediately retreat for the outer regions. Luck pending, we'll be here a week, maybe two."
"What if those intelligent dragon-kin finds us? Do we fight them?"
"We can negotiate, or we can escape. At worst, you'll be activating your contingency beacon. Don't worry about me if that happens. Unless the Yinglong shows up, nothing will prevent me from making a bolt for it. They'll give up pursuit once we're south of the Dragon Pine."
The two emerged into the sickly daylight of the permanently overcast mountain, ready to move on.
Transmuted Flight was out of the question. It ruined the Transmutation function of their Optic-Cloaks, and the magic left a jet stream of mana distinct to Humans.
By mid-morning, Gwen and Jun penetrated the Sea of Clouds.
True to its name, the cloud sea circled the three peaks of Huangshan like a cat, enveloping the granite tops and its draconic-silhouetted pine trees like a shroud. Occasionally, the two caught glimpses of blue sky, affirming their orientation via revelatory confirmations of Lotus Peak. Most of the time, the misty haze made orientation difficult.
When the peak came into view again, Gwen felt slivers of ice stabbing her spine.
"I think the Yinglong is up there," she noted to her uncle. "My Divination is acting all funny."
"We're here to avoid it," he assured her. "Don't stare at the Peak too intently or anything. Let's not tempt fate."
More than once, they almost ran headfirst into the local fauna. The first time it was a harmless mountain goat. When they hid and made their observations, they could see that it had claws for feet and that its teeth were tooled to rend flesh. Not knowing if it was a part of a herd, they left it alone.
The next monster to encounter them wasn't so lucky.
The duo's first victim was a bird creature, a mere head shorter than Gwen from head to tail.
While Ariel distracted it with lightning sparks, Caliban snuck up in its spider form, made invisible by her new spell, and ambushed the creature by pinning it into a tree with its fore-limbs. The bird was then pulled, kicking, flapping and screeching into the Void-spider's all-consuming secondary maw.
The commotion meant that they had to relocate. Carrying Gwen on his back, Jun pushed upward for another kilometre, then turned downhill for another two before moving up again, forming a zig-zag trail as the duo made for the Lotus Peak. She recovered a minute later, citing that the bird, for all its pretty plumage, was lacklustre on all accounts.
When the sun reached its zenith, the duo arrived at the saddle of Lotus Peak.
"Let's get a lay of the land first. Pass me the map."
Jun produced a Divination-enhanced compass, a device that unscrambled the influence of leyline interference. Gwen watched and listened as Jun marked out three locations. A Sky Lake where magical creatures frequented, a grove that looked to be a prime nesting, and a gorge where Mermen were reported to have lightning-based abilities.
Now that they were above an altitude where less hardy plants could grow, the pine coverage thinned, making progress easier thanks to the hard granite underfoot. Newly vitalised with the pangolin's Essence, Gwen made easy progress, outpacing even Jun, who became out of breath after an almost sixty-degree climb that lasted forty minutes.
"Okay, take a break." Her uncle regarded her with a critical eye. She had leapt from rock to rock like a mountain goat. "I am an old man, you know? Have some decency for the elderly."
Gwen laughed, berating her uncle for his dishonesty.
Jun elected to self-buff, reinforcing himself with Enhanced abilities from the Transmutation school before they continued.
The Sky Lake came into view an hour later after the two ate their military ration of nutritious un-food. From a distance, the "Billabong", as Gwen would know it, was formed between two outcroppings that created a wide wedge. One end appeared to have been dammed by fallen debris from a shattered crag, suggesting that the lake was likely made intentionally rather than naturally formed. Drawing on her recollection of National Geographic, Gwen knew that Huangshan lacked the altitude for glaciers, adding to her suspicion that the lake was a thing of design.
The two remained cloaked and hidden as they surveyed their new hunting ground.
Besides the watering hole were various creatures, each bearing a hint of Draconic ancestry.
Goats the likeness of those Gwen had seen before roved in herds of a dozen and more. From a further edge of the lake, predatory fauna such as Owl-faced Bears warily watched the roving herd of omnivorous goats. The larger of the Owl-faced Bears particularly caught Jun's fancy, who noted its pelt could be converted into elemental-resistant battle armour.
"The Americans prefer their Golem Plates, but us traditionalists always value mobility and flexibility," her Ash Bringer remarked, the ethos of his achievements speaking for themselves.
The Owl-faced Bear they eyed was of the Asia-major species, more agile than stocky, reaching a little over the size of a full-grown man and weighing half a ton. The Draconic variant retained their hawkish facial features and cumbersome body, though their reptilian claws looked formidable.
"Look over there." Jun pointed. "Draconic-macaques."
Goats and Macaques! Gwen's eyes widened at the sight of what she first thought was a dozen harmless fur balls hanging from trees. Now that she could adequately put into perspective what she was seeing, the damned things were numberless. They were so numerous that the enormous, heaven-piercing metasequoia beside the lake was drooping with the weight of their bodies!
"I think we're in luck." Jun's voice turned hopeful, pointing to a herd of snow-white deer led by a massive stag. "Check those out."
Gwen activated her Detect Magic, distinguishing that those were indeed Lightning-based creatures. The stag looked a little like a Kirin, with jutting antlers, a draconic face, scales covering most of the body, and hooves like jewels.
"Beautiful," she uttered, feeling a pang of guilt.
"Don't dwell on it," Jun reminded her. "Just one herd of those things could take out an entire season's crops. That hoard of monkeys could probably dismantle half of Hangzhou."
"There's something in the water as well." Gwen registered the peculiar refraction. "The surface is brimming with motes of Lightning."
Just as Gwen began to doubt her eyes, one of the goats approached the tranquil edge of the lake. It watched the surface warily, then, with great deliberation and care, began to lap.
To Gwen's eyes, the motes of lightning instantly condensed. The goat rose into the air as though stepping on invisible stones. It had made it a dozen meters when the water's surface exploded, revealing the head of a fish-cum-serpent creature with a cumbersome, armoured head, saliently characterised by two whiskers.
A Magical Carp! One whose dumb-founded expression was almost comical.
A jolt of Tyrian-purple lighting lashed the goat from the whiskers, paralysing it midair. With another powerful swish of its tail, the nine-meter odd creature lunged into the air as though swimming through water, took the goat in distended lips, and then dove back into the lake.
"A Dragon Carp!" Jun placed a hand on Gwen's shoulder. "That's no lake! It's a pool of condensed elemental mana! We're in luck!"
Uncle and niece spent the next hour marking down the traits and habits of fauna they could observe.
"We can start by isolating the smaller creatures. As for the larger ones, caution before action. We need to doubly affirm their numbers, intelligence, social groups, allies and enemies. One strike—that's all the chance we're getting each time. We take our prey and leave no traces. The more discreet our poaching, the more shots we can get at Core-harvesting. Hopefully, one of them would retain a Lightning spirit."
"Alright, Uncle." Gwen turned to the map and studied it carefully. The updated map was overlayed with keys and guides, with colour-coded annotations for all the different creatures, their routes and territories.
"If you want some meat tonight, though." Jun grinned. "I doubt anyone would miss one of those goats."