The Dragon-Goat was lured with a can of half-opened Spam.
Uncle and niece located a sheltered space between two crags, Transmuted a thin ledge, then set up the Portable Habitat. Once they were snug and secure, a length of Everlong String and a can of processed meat managed to isolate a wandering goat looking to forage.
When the bleating omnivore came close enough to the entrance, an ambushing Caliban in its spider-guise materialised from its Invisible pretence, pierced the creature with its foreclaws, then scurried up and into the portal.
“Shaaaa!” Caliban deposited dinner at Gwen's feet, waving its scythe-like limbs.
“Thanks, Cali.” Gwen gave it a pat, careful to avoid the forelimbs.
They were outside the house proper, in the grey-zone that extended twenty-odd meters in a radius around the bungalow. The pocket dimension had been empowered to have an allowance for extra storage, though anything outside the dwelling was stowed at the owner’s own risk.
“I am going to show you how to dress your kill,” Jun instructed Caliban to hang up the goat. “But first…”
Jun held out a bowl and collected the blood.
“A pint of the fabled heart-blood of a draconic-something. It’ll be fortifying. Go on.”
Gwen stared at the bloody gloop in horror.
Jun pressed a hand to his hip, musing at Gwen judgementally.
“You down a full-sized healer kicking and screaming, and now you’re squeamish about drinking some blood? Just think of it as medicine.”
Her uncle's got the right idea, Gwen thought, feeling numb about it all.
She took the bowl, held her nose, then slammed the shot like a Bloody-Mary.
To her surprise, the blood did not taste of anything too disagreeable, if anything, it had a hint of oxidising iron in an old factory. The taste was such a strange synaesthesia, nostalgic too; the blood's olfactory stimulus reminded her of the abandoned St James Station in Sydney, with its rusted rails.
As with the Queen Bee, Gwen soon felt a heat roaring in her torso. Hopefully, it was the fire of vitality, and not the water of dysentery.
"We'll have as many pints as it takes for the diminishing return to hit." Jun nodded happily, drinking a bowl himself. "Oof! That's the stuff."
After a few more bowls, they got down to work.
“Alright, Caliban, take the hind legs. Yep. Just like that. Now spread them. Good. Forelegs too. Very good. Okay, Gwen, you're up.”
As a born and bred city girl, Gwen wasn’t entirely sure what dressing an animal involved, though she could guess it didn't include bowties.
By now, the Dragon-Goat was mercifully deceased. Caliban held the goat like a rack, rearing on its hind legs by locking its chitin-plated joints. The carcass was thus splayed like a cheerleader jumping in mid-air, in the guise of one hollering 'gimme an X!'
Jun passed Gwen a bowie-knife.
“Cut here, and here.”
Gwen sawed away, striking sparks.
Jun raised an eyebrow.
“Tough customer. Alright, draw me a mote of Void onto your fingertips.”
Gwen concentrated for a second, then carefully raised a stark-white finger with a dash of darkness at its extremity.
She did as she was told, with Jun giving the instructions slowly and meticulously. Where her fingers touched, the skin and flesh quickly fell apart. The unconventional use of her element gave Gwen an idea, though the execution of it was a little terrifying to entertain.
“Right. So, the belly and bowel contents are high in contaminants and must be removed promptly to avoid contaminating the flesh. The body's organs need to be removed as soon as possible. Yes, that means everything from the throat to the anus…”
Gwen held back her Military Rations as bundles of stuff emerged, splattering the ground with obscene noises.
“You see that? That’s a scent gland. Mature male goats and deer have pungent scent glands. You see those? Balls. You don’t think an animal of this size would have balls bigger than its brains, no? That tells you a lot about these dragon-goats, hahaha.”
Her uncle’s jocular manner made her both pale-faced from the gore and blushing from the brusqueness. Indeed, the dragon-goat’s cock was probably the largest ‘organ’ the thing possessed, thumping onto the floor like a bloody eel.
Before Gwen could riposte her uncle's ill humour, Ariel dashed from the porch, snatched up the foot-long wang, then fled.
“Ariel!” Gwen felt a rush blood reddening her face; she willed a jolt of Conjuration mana into compelling Ariel's obedience. “For fuck’s sake!”
“Ahahaha! It looks like your mongoose has a hankering for snakes!”
* * *
Jun checked the exterior security of their abode several times during the night, telling Gwen to have a good night’s sleep. As for himself, he needed to meditate. As Caliban was an existential insomniac, Gwen instructed the creature to keep Jun company.
She found that whenever Jun patted the void-serpent, she could feel a phantom sensation upon her Astral Body. The strangeness of it was keeping her from sleep; like an itch in the bone that she couldn’t scratch, subtle but infinitely distracting.
When morning finally came, she felt more tired than ever, while Jun appeared fully refreshed.
“Blood not agreeing with you? I heard it could act like caffeine for some people.”
“Something like that.” Gwen had to rinse and gargle multiple times; her morning breath may be because of the blood, but more likely her restlessness was to blame.
When the two re-emerged, the rising sun had cast a deep shadow across the valley, punctuated by geometric rays of burnishing coral which lit the peaks with fiery contours. Gwen found the splendour breathtaking until the cloud banks rolled in, whereupon the vision took on a surreal majesty. The temperature of the valley, especially before it could receive the sun’s consecration, was single-digits at best. The warm currents of elemental air and water thus flowed down the mountain, epic streams of lazy mana, pooling and congealing, swirling in eddies and streams until they reached the bottom, collecting into the Sky Lake.
“Magnificent.” Gwen had seen Life of Pi in IMAX, but the view exceeded even that.
“Yeah.” Jun stood beside her, feeling that all's right with the world. “Alright. Let’s buff up! Fresh crystals for all your gear.”
* * *
As they marked a perimeter for their hunt, the duo placed teleportation beacons here and there for insurance.
“I suggest we proceed opportunistically,” Jun suggested, satisfied that they had several routes of escape planned. “The goats and the small fauna will help, accumulatively at least. A little draconic essence here and there. Even a mosquito has meat if you’re eager enough. Wen said there should be diminishing returns on your Consume; I say let’s find out its limits.”
The duo's ultimate target was the deer herd.
The Thunder Deer were guarded, as expected, by a massive buck the size of a people-mover van. In addition to emitting AOE Lightning, it also made a cacophonic noise when charging, creating a thunderclap on impact. Gwen had been witness to one such attack when a civet-like predator tried to have a go at a fawn. The resultant sound from the stag was like rolling thunder, echoing from cliff to cliff, refracting from the surface of the Sky Lake.
Their secondary target was the Dragon-Carp; voracious, vicious and mindlessly hungry in their desire to consume anything that came close to the lake's edge. Watching the dumb fish, Jun figured that they could likely fish one by using Ariel as bait.
“EEEEeee?!” Ariel presented itself eagerly, happy to serve.
It had eaten half of the goat-cock by the time she compelled it to return it. The act was nonsensical to Gwen, who knew Ariel to be a manifested, metaphysical marten, not in truth a creature of flesh and blood. What did it even do for digestion? She had never seen Ariel poop! Was there a cryptozoologist who could explain?
Amused by her flustered bemusement. Jun told her not to mind.
“Both of your Familiars are strange, to say the least,” he noted. “Caliban’s on a whole other level, of course. Ariel is likewise unusually salient, or I should say, ‘invested’ within the Material Realm. It even takes damage, no? It has taste, it can feel, it knows pain..."
“Should I be concerned?”
“I am not a Conjurer, so I can’t offer any educated advice.” Jun shrugged. “But let me remind you that you ARE running a Signature Conjure Familiar, maybe the one who taught you could tell you more?”
Jun's reminder made Gwen think of her deceased Master, engendering a tightness in her chest. She thought of the last time she had seen him, asleep beneath Sufina's Lifetree, presided over by the expressionless face of his eternal guardian; Master and Familiar, silent in the cold dark Grot.
Was her Conjure Familiar yet another memento from her Master?
Her Master had drawn the Summoning Circle himself, had he not? Her Opa had likewise said the duo spared no expense. There was even a mention of Griffin blood, Powdered Mithril-
Now that Gwen had received a practical education, the remembrance astounded her. Griffin blood?! Where does one acquire Royal Egyptian Griffin Blood in Australia? Powdered Mithril? That stuff was from the Demi-human Dwarves, all the way from the depth of the Glocknergruppe range, east of Brenner Pass, was it not?
And Gwen? She had been just a fledgling Conjurer.
Those ingredients were tier five, perhaps six? More? She would have to consult Petra. Now that she thought about it, those medium-tier Warding Glyphs looked suspiciously like Conjuration Glyphs. According to the instructions given by Magister Birch, the ones in her memory matched that of a Twin-Radii Octogramic Summoning Circle.
Bloody hell! She had to go back and check with Petra. If true, what insanity-
“Hey, focus.” Her uncle nudged her.
They were lurking not far from the edge of the lake, two mucky cats eyeing the fish in the pond.
“So, Ariel lures the carp, when it clears the water. We’ll both Alpha-Strike. I’ll go for the limbs and fins; you go for the tail. We only need the head and torso. Caliban will collect, then we’ll make for Safe Point Alpha. If anything goes amiss, we’ll extract to Delta or Epsilon to regroup and assess.”
"Yessir." Gwen performed a salute.
She ran the map-locations through her head again, then commanded Ariel to go ‘drink’.
They had earlier discovered that the simple act of allowing her Lightning Familiar to bath in the hyper-condensed mana increased its constitution little-by-little. Were it not for the fact that the waters were filled with tier 5 Ariel-eating Carp, Gwen would have happily allowed the little furball to soak.
After a minute of Ariel’s one marten, all nude bath-show, the first fish happened upon them.
The early carp gets the weasel!
With a burst of Elemental Air, Water and Lightning, the glassy-eyed carp emerged in its six-meter glory. The front of its body resembled a koi, while the rest of its body resembled a predatory Arowana crossed over with a sea snake.
Jun’s spell struck first, executed with both finesse and precision, severing the creature’s tendrils which it used for elemental attacks. The main body though, proved far too resistant even for Jun’s penetrative potential, disabling only one of its four frontal fins.
More importantly, Jun's Negative-Energy drain filled the struggling fish with Ashen thoughts of despair and apathy.
Gwen’s Void-empowered orb imploded upon the petrified carp, striking its lower torso; first shrinking, then expanding into a two-meter sphere before erupting again as a concentric ring of necrotic ink, severing the creature in twain.
As the carp's initial momentum brought it forward, Caliban emerged, first hooking into the front-half of the still writhing Dragon-Carp, then fleeing for the Safe Point Alpha.
"Gwen, you're up."
Jun had informed his niece that it was best they save his translocation device for emergencies, meaning it fell upon Gwen to act as their Dimension Door to and from the sheltering recess of the twisting pine grove.
Once inside, Jun checked the surroundings for danger; Ariel aided the Ash Mage by sniffing out potential adversaries, while Caliban laid out their quarry.
The two Mages inspected their still-living prey.
To their relief, the Dragon-carp was indeed a creature of Lightning and air. Its eyes were glazed over, two giant yellow spheres, within which reflected the faces of its assailants. It opened and closed its mouth like a landed fish even though it could breathe the air as easily as it did the Elemental-Water of the Sky-Lake.
From lake to plate, the poachers had a window of several minutes. These Magical Carp were hardy creatures. Without Jun, Gwen would have struggled to keep her prey from fleeing into the depth. Even with two-thirds of its body missing, its draconic-constitution could likely keep it alive, mayhap even regrow its lost lower-half.
A fraction of the creature’s elusive essence became absorbed by Jun’s amulet, the other portion by Caliban. Gwen sat crossed legged on the pine-needle strewn floor, anticipating the rush. The ecstasy arrived a minute later, filling her with supernatural vitality. By the reckoning of her Nephres-Index, its life-force could be felt at a 4 or 5. By now, Gwen was getting a hang of how the sensation translated into various states of orgiastic paralysis. Under 3 induced quivering and shaking, 4 to 6 required a lie-down, and anything above 6 likely resulted in blackouts. A hypothesis she was keen to prove, was whether intensity decreased as satiation increased. If she felt crammed full of vitality, would an 8 on the Nephres-Index knock her out, or would the sensation be blunted?
As before, the pair cleaned up their murder scene, hid a safe distance away, then waited.
When no creatures appeared, they furthermore snagged a few of the Draconic-goats, whose attraction to small furry animals scurrying for cover far exceeded their capacity to process caution and safety-in-numbers.
As they waited for the Thunder Deer herd, the pair continued their Ariel Dragon-noodling. There were a few close calls when the marten was nearly swallowed, but Gwen found that she could unsummon her Familiar, even if it had entered the gullet of a four-hundred odd kilogram carp. Any injuries Ariel sustained quickly recovered once it returned to the pocket dimension of her spell.
The second day thus came to an end, three carps and a dozen goats stuffed into The Lurker in the Dark's limitless gullet without the slim creature showing so much as a bulge.
Caliban coughed up 3 fist-sized cores of various clarity.
The carps’ cores were without hosts, but at least they were Lightning.
The goats, on the other hand, were a mixture of primary elements that made them seldom more useful than low to mid-level materials.
“Feed them to Ariel?” Jun suggested. “How desperate are you for crystals?”
“Not overly much,” Gwen admitted. “At least until I have bigger prospects.”
“Wait, don’t feed Ariel now. What if it goes to sleep? You said that’s what happened last time.”
“Oh yes, of course.” Gwen was reminded that Ariel had been out of action for almost a week after the eland core. She needed her marten with her right now, any potential boosts for her familiar would have to wait,
“The Dragon-Carps are dumber than I anticipated,” Jun noted suspiciously once the duo retreated into their den. “You know what they remind me of?”
“Pets?” Gwen thought of the Koi she had seen in Qīn’s pond.
“Cattle.” Jun dug his chopsticks into a leg of roasted dragon-goat. Another reason for dressing the animal was to release the leftover essence and residue mana so that mundane heat could be used to cook it. In high-class restaurants, Magically trained Chefs prepared chomps of vitality-filled Auroch-hinds with arcane fire in enchanted kitchens. There were rarer, higher-class restaurants where actual Mage-chefs prepare rare and exotic Magical Creatures, crafting alchemical cuisine with magical properties.
“They milk… the Carp?” Gwen tried her best to imagine how such a thing was possible. Did reptile-fish even produce milk? Maybe they excreted gloop, one which could be synthesised into something edible.
“For... meat,” Jun corrected Gwen’s overactive imagination, bemused and amused. “Did you notice how they kept to the Sky Lake even though they could swim through the air however they pleased? Maybe it's a pen to fatten them up?”
“Hmm…” Gwen knew all about the dangers of stealing livestock. The greatest Australian folk-song of all time was about an old swagman thrifting an escaped jumbuck til the troopers chased the poor bastard into a billabong, where he joined the fishes. They say that till this day, you could hear the winds singing 'Waltzing Matilda'. As for why the story made a popular children's limerick, it spoke volumes for the morbidness of Australian bush-humour. “Should we relocate?”
“No, not at night.” Jun carved out another generous portion for himself. Gwen had already stuffed herself; her appetite restricted to the mortal realm, for now. “We’ll check on the Thunder Stag and its herd again tomorrow, whether it's present or otherwise, we need to move out.”
With dinner done, Gwen washed up. From the kitchen sink, she watched Jun undergo the rite of drawing essence from his Kirin Stone. Her uncle wasn’t even bothering to hide it now. He gratuitously masticated, for the lack of a better arcane metaphor, the essences captured in the heirloom at every opportunity, keeping himself in peak condition.
Thinking of Jun’s proposal, Gwen felt full of disquiet.
For how long could they remain hidden, poaching the Magical Beasts?
Now that they were in the thick of it, her optimism that a Lightning Spirit presented itself miraculously seemed ever more unlikely. What was the tipping point where risk outweighed the reward? She was too inexperienced to know. Though she trusted Jun absolutely to make the right decision, she couldn’t help but feel a tinnitus buzz pinging her Divination Sigil, humming in her ears that all of this, was hubris and folly.
* * *
“Ryxi, it’s not Golos,” Ayxin halted her two half-siblings by placing her body between them. “He took one Carp. I was there when he caught it.”
Ryxi snarled, his serpentine form sleek and slender as he coiled and uncoiled with barely contained rage, his ivory scales glimmering.
“Those were meant for Father! They were a gift!”
Unlike his siblings, Ryxi was the descendant of the White Serpent, one of the original denizen of the Three Heavenly Peaks. Unlike the Yinglong, the Spirit-Serpent lacked the draconic vitality to survive past its second millennium, choosing instead to spend its final few centuries hibernating until its children could find something to prolong its life. Celestial Peak was where it made its home, though it was more accurate to say that the Peak 'was' its form since the great serpent slumbered in the guise of a skyward block of pure white granite. Over the years, Dragon pine and other flora had taken up residence on its body until it resembled a part of the original landscape itself.
Of all their siblings, Ryxi was the oldest, though not the most powerful. Ruxin was the most powerful, though the Thunder Dragon rarely came home, preferring to wander abroad and consort with their oceanic cousins, the Hailong. Ryxi took after his 'mother', a scholarly soul who could find amusement rearing rare butterflies for half a century.
Both brothers knew that Ayxin was the favourite, she had the most clout when any issue was presented before Father, and therefore it wasn't worth it to anger her.
“I am missing FIVE Dragon-carp!” Ryxi snapped. “Goats too! There’s nothing else within Father’s demesne that has an appetite like this greedy, insatiable lizard!”
“There should be other tracks…”
“What tracks?! The only tracks I could find was this fat lizard trailing carp-scales, blood and guts all over my territory!”
Golos' temper flared.
“I don't like your tone, brother. When’s the last time you shed your skin? I hope it won’t take another century for your scales to grow back,” the wyvern threatened his sibling smugly. He knew that the spineless Ryxi couldn’t stand up to him, not before, and certainly not now. It was just a carp; father was barely awake these days, when would he even have the time for eating stupid carp?
“Shut up! Both of you!” Ayxin spat, her draconic eyes sparked with annoyance. “We have an intruder into the realm. I believe they took Angkar.”
“Who? The earthen whelp? He’s useless.” Ryxi seemed more confused as to what possible use anyone could have for something as diluted and un-dragon-like as Angkar. There were hundreds, if not a thousand beings like Angkar in the lower reaches. Ryxi wouldn’t even consider them Father’s spawn, for they were merely mundane Magical Creatures who had taken up vestiges of their father’s immortal essence as his slumbering spirit permeated the mountain. If someone actually cared about those bastards everytime they died, they would have no time to tend to Bonzai, or carp, or silkworms! How would Ayxin like it if she had to stride the place with complete immodesty? Golos was terrible enough as he is.
“Maybe one of the others ate him?” Ryxi suggested. The list of culprits could go on virtually forever. Angkar's primary defence was to become a tasty, crunchy ball, after all. Both he and Golos could arguably swallow Angkar whole.
“No, this is different.” Ayxin put a finger to her lips, making the others stare. “It’s the intruders, I know it. They have no scent and left virtually no tracks. All I found was ash, and something else.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know.” Ayxin couldn’t put it into words. It was truer to say that she detected an absence. However Angkar had died, it was as though he had ceased to exist. Where his scent was everywhere at first, it suddenly disappeared as though their sibling had evaporated. “Look, forget about Golos, keep an eye on your flock. Stop playing around with your insects, or miniature trees or whatever, stay near the Sky Lake. Tell me as soon as you find something. Hold them down until we can arrive.”
The three Dragonkin were perched, coiled, and seated on a rocky crag overlooking the Sky-lake below. The moon hung high in the sky, though only a little of it pierced the thick banks of elemental air circulating to and fro from one peak to another.
“Fine,” Ryxi muttered, displeased with the unsatisfying outcome. “I shall be as watchful as my originator, a veritable stone sentinel.”
* * *
“We’re in luck!”
The duo was indeed in luck.
After more than two days at the Sky Lake, the Thunder Stag and its herd finally returned.
They were simply there as uncle and niece had emerged from the Habitat, each animal carefully taking turns drinking from the liquefied elemental air of the lake.
The buck, a big brute well over four meters and zinging with excess motes of Lightning, stood guard while the females drank one after another, guiding their fawns to sup at the condensed mana.
“We’ll have to take down the buck first,” Jun observed. “As for the rest, how ambitious do you feel?”
"Heh, alright. That means we'll try to corner the whole pack, the females, fawns and all."
Gwen fought down the thought that she was mass-murdering innocent beasts for uncertain 'drops', wasting their meat and blood.
Though the Thunder Deer had draconic facial features, they remained gentle creatures with a clear emphasis on herd and family. The old Gwen of Sydney would have surely revolted at so much slaughter.
“Alright, what’s the play?”
“Distract with Ariel, alpha strike the buck, disable, not kill, at least until you can Consume. I’ll construct a Blade Barrier to the left and right in a triangular arc, pinning them against the water. Assuming they can’t fly, they should be trapped. Start Consuming as soon as its safe to do so. Once Barriers are up, I’ll help you pacify the rest.”
“Are we giving up being covert?”
“Calculated risk. The Stags are too skittish to hunt one by one. This is an opportunity, Gwen. A docile, high-tier, Elemental Spirit. It’s too good a chance to pass up. There are potentially two dozen cores in it.”
“No risk, no gain." Gwen worked to convince herself.
“That's right. Keep an eye out though. Remember, if we run into the Demi-humans from last time, stick close. Extraction via point Beta to Episolon.”
Think of the future, Gwen thought to herself as she crumpled the remorse rising in her chest. Think of the Spirit!
Indeed, the prospect of a high-tier Spirit drowned her protest. By God! If she could get her Affinity to Eight, her spell volume and damage would be immeasurable! For the IIUC, she could keep casting without pause until the opposing Abjurer was OOM, then continue unabated until victory was all but certain!
She thought about Lulan’s speciality, that spell-flurry of ceaseless strikes! If she could perform the same with Lightning or Void, the two of them could make a ridiculous range-melee combination.
Gwen felt shivers up her spine, all she could do was ask nature to forgive her transgression.
I am sorry, deer fawns.
To Doe, or not to Doe, there was no question.
It was time to crash the Stag's party.