Ariel once again played the Judas Goat, making itself plainly visible as it sauntered toward the Sky Lake’s edge to partake in nature's bounty.
Initially, the Thunder Stag regarded the unexpected intruder with wariness, though caution was quickly dispelled by curiosity as it noted an ancient, emerald presence, more alluring than anything the stag had ever encountered in its half-century of existence.
The source of the glow was a viridescent light, held in the marten creature’s mouth-pouch.
The stag ventured closer, followed by a few of the braver females, licking their draconic snouts. Others soon followed, perceiving that it was safe when the alpha began sniffing the minuscule predator.
Soon, the herd formed a small semicircle around the marten.
“Hrrmph!” The stag nudged the Ariel, demanding that it give up whatever prize it held, greedy for the delicious fecundity withheld by the marten.
Bullied and harassed, Ariel dropped the crystal at the buck’s feet. The marten was gone in the next second, remembered only by a streak of silver.
“Neerrrgh?” The Stag nudged the crystal. Perhaps it was edible?
The crystal cracked.
Though Thunder Deer were no strangers to a good cacophony, the spell that now struck the herd seared their eyeballs and jarred their brains.
The resultant din echoed far and wide across the misty sound, its rumbling not unlike the echoing taunt of a mythic beast.
“NEERRRRGH!” The Stag panicked, swinging its mighty sixteen-pointers to and fro, knocking aside doe and fawn in its frenzy. Its eyes became dark; its ears rang with tinnitus. All it could smell was fear, the scent of blind terror from its herd, with the females shitting and pissing as they hysterically scattered.
‘Whirp! Whirp! Whirp! Whirp! Whirp!”
There was a strange metallic vibration in the air, so loud as to be audible even to the stag's impaired sensory organ.
Abruptly, it inhaled the redolence of blood, tasted the iron in the air.
A female had died!
“EEEAARMF!” the Thunder Stag Buck roared, gathering Lightning into electrified horns. It would envelop their entire surrounding with a lightning field, bypassing its herd and decimate its enemies.
“Conjure Elemental Void Swarm!”
A sudden sense of vertigo overwhelmed the herd, sending the weaker creatures tumbling to their knees. The stronger ones buckled and bolted, only to run into a wall of scything blades formed from scalding ash, severing limbs and heads. Those that survived the dismembering sank limply onto the grassy knoll, choosing instead to bleed out, losing the will to flee.
"Shaa shaaa shaaaa..."
The buck was cunning enough to wait until the sound of crawling intruders could be palpably felt within the perimeter of its electro-sensitive fur. As the charge in its horns peaked, it unleashed a semi-dome blast of lightning and thunder, forming a circumference of crisscrossing electricity twenty meters across and expanding rapidly.
With its reserves spent, the stag snorted the scent of charred grass, ionised air, and lingering ozone.
“Neerrrgh!” it warned its females not to stray too far.
‘Shaa shaaa shaa shaaaa shaa shaaaa…”
The strange noise came on again.
The stag circulated a jolt of lightning through its body, fortifying its fur with an electrified charge capable of instantly killing lesser creatures.
All around it, the odour of piss, shit and blood polluted the air.
The insane bleats and neighs of its females tempted the stag to flee. Within its hormone-induced brain, self-preservation and herd-instinct fought for dominance.
Its vision returned.
The Stag raised its head proudly, its electrified irises contracting, ready to ignite the first enemy it spotted.
The first and last thing it saw was two tentacles, one red and the other blue, a fraction of a second before their lamprey’s lips, lined with thousands of grinding teeth, kissed its eyeballs.
A three-metre Death-Gila brought the stunned stag to its knees, its jaws distended impossibly, ready for the feast to come.
* * *
Caliban needed no coaxing from Gwen to execute the dazed stag with two direct strikes to the eyes, instantly causing its body to go limp.
When her Void-Familiar had been caught in the Lighting AOE, Gwen had felt her heart skip. Even in its thick-skinned Gila-form, the energy had been enough to de-glove Caliban from faceless mien to bladed digit, stripping away its obsidian toad-skin to reveal pulsating purple flesh beneath. Had Caliban been a creature with actual biology, it would have died then and there from the shock.
Chocked full of usurped vitality, Caliban recovered in the next instant, drawing upon its stores to replenish its physical presence within the material realm.
Gwen gave up her excess without reserve, willing her creature to gorge itself.
Meanwhile, her previously repelled Void Swarm once again manifested, fueled by carp and goat. Her error had been a product of inexperience, she couldn't hold onto the final incantation and had blown the spell's payload too soon.
As for her long-anticipated Void Elementals; courtesy of Magister Wen's extensive research on her Master's signature incantations, the result proved both spectacular and disheartening.
She had presumed beetles or scarabs, or even long-limbed netherworld aberrations, but what she got were lampreys - slick, slithering lampreys - an oily, oozing mess of hungry mouths, moving en masse.
Thousands upon thousands of lampreys, swarming over one another in an eager bid to reach the feast before them. What was worse was that like Caliban's serpent form, the things had no eyes. It was as though she had summoned an abstract swarm of voracious chompers.
Worse still, Gwen had seen the spectacle before. Though she had no dark egg to house her swarm like Elizabeth Sobel, her inadvertently identical manifestation hinted at the undeniable link they shared.
“Mao, that's a terrifying sight!” Jun felt the impact of the Void as well, growing paler as he maintained both of his Bladed Barriers. “At this rate, we’re definitely going to have company! Get Consuming!”
Gwen needed no encouragement from her Uncle.
Caliban was already at work.
It sucked in the four-meter stag with a single gulp before turning upon the hapless females.
Meanwhile, Gwen's Swarm had reached the weakened members of the herd too hurt or injured to thrash and kick. The lampreys slithered up the bloodstained coats of horrified deer as they bleated in hysteria, lapping up the scarlet dew. Except for those made insensible by Jun’s Ash, the rest began an insane shriek that echoed around the valley, filling Gwen’s ears with madcap, child-like wailing.
Gods! She was going to be sick! Gwen willed herself to steel her proverbial spine. She couldn't relent now! The slaughter must continue, she was doing this for a Lightning Spirit! To stop would be an insult to her uncle's endeavour! This opportunity would not rise again!
Jun scanned the horizon. It couldn't take long for reinforcements to arrive. That druidic-essence empowered Flashbang, the Thunder Stag’s AOE, the slaughter within which they were now engaged; each one was enough to draw the Yinglong's ire. Then there was the fact that even he felt sickened by Gwen's Conjure Elemental, and he had once seen a swarm of Ghasts tear a whole platoon apart limb by limb. He would have to caution her about using this variation in public.
Unlike its master and her uncle, Caliban had no qualms. Young and old, large and small, wounded and maimed, the Void-worm had never known a more celebrated orchestra in all its life. The feast was endless. It leapt from creature to creature, Consuming one after another, shrugging off lightning strikes that would strip off its hide, shatter its carapace or displace its limbs.
A fawn tried to hide by digging into the carcass of its mother.
Caliban cared not. The more it fed, the haler it became.
By its third doe, the Void Swarm joined the slaughter; prey ceased struggling altogether as a swarm of dark and unspeakable things smothered their bodies and delved into every orifice, natural or otherwise.
“Woa!” Jun hid behind Gwen, safe from her hungry, hungry lampreys.
His Kirin Stone was so hot with absorption that it was blushing the skin on his chest. Not even in the heat of a city-wide battle had the stone overworked itself so magnificently, though Undead hardly compared to the vigorous vitality of a forty-strong herd of draconic-deer. Regardless, all good things must come to an end. “Another minute, then we DD! Exfil to designation Beta!”
“Don’t be greedy,” Jun cautioned her. “Caliban already has the buck stowed inside, and a dozen others. Besides, you’re going to be out like a candle before you know it.”
SHIT! She cursed herself. She had been so concerned about the deer escaping that she had neglected the fact that she wasn’t consuming one or two of these things, but dozens! Though each doe was nothing compared to say, a Dragon-carp, they were still sizeable creatures, not to mention the buck was enormously vital itself.
“Caliban! We’re leaving!”
She left the Swarm manifested as they made their escape, taking as much of the biomass into her as she could. Like Caliban, each lamprey was returning to her tiny slivers of health; en mass, they added up.
“Ergn~Grrgn!” Gwen let loose a moan that was more embarrassing than she had anticipated, stifled by forcibly clenching her jaws.
Her uncle was right once again.
Two kilometres into the mist-shrouded pine forest, Caliban delivered its payload.
She had commanded it to hold on, but there was a limit to her Familiar's proverbial bladder. While Gwen could double-Door consecutively, the third and so on required increasingly longer breaks. She was glad therefore that her uncle had plotted navigation-points prior with Tele-beacons, reducing her mental burden significantly. They were at the edge of the forest in two jumps, then well within its coverage by the fifth. By the tenth, they were on the subtly transmuted ledge of another crag, out of LOS both above and below.
Jun caught her as she doubled over.
Her breath was coming in rags now; her eyes were rolling back into her skull. Gwen hid her face against Jun's chest, the alternative was too upsetting.
A quick manipulation of the Portable Habitat opened up its near-invisible entrance; then the two were gone from sight.
* * *
Ryxi had never been gladder that he wasn’t the combative sort of Dragon-kin.
The lineage of the White Snake was elemental creatures of Air. They were scholarly beings, creative and interested in the world. When met with an interesting stimulus, their first instinct was to study the thing, a world’s difference from say, its Thunder Wyvern half-brother, whose preference would be ‘can I eat it?’ followed by ‘what if I fucked it?’; when both failed, Golos chose destruction.
He had been meditating in the Sky Lake, well covered by the clouds when the culprits appeared.
A first Ryxi felt cheated. If he had caught Golos bloody-clawed and gore-toothed, there would have been a case to make in front of Father.
His first instinct was how to toy with the two humans. After all, Ryxi was a master of mirage and illusion, and these were puny mortal beings. He watched with great interest as the creatures ambushed his animals, waiting for them to expend their mana before he could strike. Ryxi relished his herd; he often milled their horns to make alchemical medicine for himself, crafting pills for father and mother. He disliked the buck though; Ryxi had a strange suspicion that the boisterous brute might be a spawn of Golos.
One of the Mages passed a viridescent crystal to its pet, a ferret.
The gem was of great interest to Ryxi because there was a familiar but also alien energy within it. He watched it being delivered to the stag.
An incapacitation spell! How wonderful!
His scholarly curiosity lasted until the larger Human manifested a dark fire, heat without matter, an all-consuming force which sapped the very life from the air.
“Heavenly Father above!”
Isn't that the power of the Drought Goddess?! Ryxi would have opened his eyes wider were they not set into his skull by bone-plates. A second barrier went up, ashen blades reeking of desolation and destruction cornered his herd.
Ryxi shook from head to tail, all fancy of fighting fleeing from his mind. It was a cowardly thing to do, but he wasn’t about to go tail to toe with a descendant of the thrice-damned Drought Goddess. His ancestors, the original occupants of the Three Peaks, had learned that the hard way. Now only his mother remained.
Just as the White Serpent didn’t think things could get worse and he should probably report to Ayxin, he felt an aversion strong enough to turn his gullet.
A horrid beast was ravaging his Stag! It was eating his deer alive! Yinglong above, he saw it penetrate the SKULL of the buck with- penises? WHY IS THERE A DEATH GILA?! THOSE ARE EXTINCT!
Ryxi had no idea his race - the divine White Cloud Serpents - could regurgitate into their mouth without prior abdominal contractions. Now he knew. Almost five centuries he had inhabited this body and still he was learning new things.
Then a swarm of dark things began to consume everything in sight.
The White Serpent held the goat carcass in his mouth, too afraid to provoke the condensed mixture of Air and Water that made up the Sky Lake.
“Caliban! We’re leaving!”
Thank the Dragon-father! Ryxi thought to itself.
He waited another minute to ensure the poachers didn’t double-back to accidentally catch a delicious White Serpent guiltily slinking away.
Ryxi knew he had to find his half-siblings as soon as possible. If the Mages were to escape the range of the mountain, he would lose track of their whereabouts.
The serpent lifted effortlessly into the air before speeding toward Ayxin's territory, adjacent to their father's White-Jade Palace.
The Drought Goddess had returned! Ryxi baulked, and her attendant controlled a Death-Gila!
* * *
Gwen dreamt of a white-jade palace.
A palace sculpted from granite, shaped by wind and will until it was perfection.
Nine mystical thresholds led from the saddle to the mount's zenith, for thereupon Lotus Peak perched the White-Jade Hall, within which sat the Nephrite Throne.
Within its vaulted hall, a mighty presence slept, slumbering the years away, bathing in a concourse crisscrossing with Elemental Air, Water, and Positive Energy. It was there, amongst the throne room pillared in white, in the midst of which was an enormous lotus, that she saw Master and Mountain both bathed in an incandescent essence.
The peculiar synaesthesia induced a wave of déjà vécu.
There had been a time when she too, experienced the intimacy of land beneath one's feet, intwined body and soul. The old Dreamer, Goolagong, had slapped her chest, thighs and buttocks with earthen handprints, dabbed her forehead with ochre and red earth, painted onto her abdomen a way for Almudj to Dream though her body.
“Kapi! Kapi! Kapi!” uttered old Goolagong, slapping her thighs.
Gwen had slapped her own, following awkwardly.
The landscape beneath her feet shifted.
As in a lucid dream, one travelled where one wished.
Red earth, blue skies. Short, stunted trees sighed at waterless creeks. A flat and vast expanse now stretched before her, extending from nowhere to infinity, its distance maddening.
Here was the Dreamtime, conceiving a continent rich and untouched.
Gwen blinked; she was back in Huangshan again, her face wet with dew as she stood upon a Dragon pine, watching the cloudscape unfold as a silk-screen painting.
The mountain called to her. It compelled her.
She had taken so much of it inside her already.
Why not join with it?
She could be the land itself, as unmoving as the three Heavenly Peaks. She could be the air itself, wandering and weightless. She could bath in the light of the risen sun. She could shower in the rain cascading from the crags, awash with white water; she could delve into depthless gorges below.
But the vastness frightened her, threatened to overwhelm her, and so she Dreamt of more familiar places.
There, Gwen saw the intimate glow of Almudj’s essence, forming the contour of a multi-hued serpent, coiled and slumbering.
The outward world pressed in.
Almudj's will pushed out.
Her world folded inwards, pulsing like a heartbeat. She was straddling two worlds, disorientated to the extreme.
Like a retreating tide, the two visions flowed into each other; it was the ebb and flow of life and land, living in one another, falling apart, coming together. She felt homesick for the native jacaranda, the blood-gum, the iron-oxide earth. She saw a Dragon Pine wilt, fighting the dry, foreign wind. She saw, from the misty peaks awash with rain, bushfires of the black north choking the blue sky, she saw a harsh horizon rimmed with red drought. How could a tree from a temperate land withstand such a thing?! Gradually, the arched, gnarly pine growing from a granite crag withered; in the next moment, it was abloom with flaming galahs, fuming with wild wings!
The pine needles, the wet squelch of fecund southern soil became overpowered by the scent of blooming dogwood under the stark moon, sweet from the hint of thunderstorms crackling cane fields.
From a red-stone throne in the midst of a vast desert, she saw the ponderous form of Almudj staring out, its obsidian orbs iridescent amidst the scintillating colour of its rainbow scales.
From the triple-silhouette of an eastern mountain, she saw the shape of a winged dragon; it’s wingspan stretching from peak to peak.
Gwen gasped, her breath catching in her chest; the pressure from the two beings was immense, she could hardly breathe.
A thick-fingered pair of dark-skinned hands took her by the wrist.
“Kapi! Kapi! Kapi!” came the voice of old Goolagong, slapping her thighs. "Come, girl! The corroboree is this way!"
The rainbow snake
see it take wing
and water fills the rivers and gullies
"Migloo girl! Did you know that Almudj dislikes strangers?"
Gwen tried to speak, but she was in the grip of a power far greater.
"Yes." old Goolagong pointed at the winged-dragon haughtily. "Almudj will attack strangers! It is known!"
Almudj rose into the air.
It was the horizon, as far as the eye could see!
* * *
“Woa! WOA! It’s me!”
Gwen’s fist smacked into something solid.
“Ooomph! Careful now.” Jun’s face hovered over his niece, wincing. "Are you alright?”
Dazed and nodding demurely, the girl straightened her camisole, then pulled her legs closer to her body. Her eyes swiftly studied the room before returning to his face.
“I am okay now, Uncle Jun." She saw him nursing his ribs. "Sorry..."
Jun retreated, wondering if he should imbibe a healing potion.
The girl had given him a fright!
When he had heard the commotion, he burst into the thankfully unlocked bedroom to find her writhing on the bed, grinding her teeth with a dangerous intensity.
Failing to wake her even with a slap to the shins, Jun ran to the kitchen and fetched a wooden ladle. He feared the worst if he let her be. Bodily wounds could be healed, but a severed tongue could spell the end of their poaching adventure.
The girl was immensely strong! Too strong, in his expert opinion. She could rival a buffed Transmuter! Was the Draconic Essence to blame? There was plenty of it in his Amulet, but the girl's Consume had never interacted with human, nor Demi-human essence before, such as those of the bipedal Gila, or the Merfolk.
Unsure of how to proceed, he elected to keep her grappled before resorting to more drastic measures, like flushing her body with his Ashen mana. It would do well to pacify her struggle, but they had neither access to a medical facility nor a healer who could offset the Drain. It would be disastrous if he had to escape the mountain with an incapacitated Gwen, or accidentally triggered her Contingency Ring.
If she suddenly disappeared and reappeared in the Pudong Tower stark raving mad, frothing at the lips, or comatose with Negative Energy, what would Magus Shultz think?
Perhaps more terrifyingly, his mother’s wrath would be unthinkable!
Klavdiya had been against the trip herself, preferring for Gwen to travel with her peers to well-explored Dungeons.
Just as Jun was ready to shoulder the burden of blame, the girl recovered. And then she punched him.
It was like being struck by a sledgehammer.
Jun was sure he had heard his rib crack.
“Sorry,” the girl apologised, her expression a mask of mortification.
He told her not to worry.
Perhaps it was best he injected the healing potion out of sight.
“I’ll be in the kitchen. Come out and explain yourself, if you’re able. If you can't, we're going home. I’ll have breakfast ready.”
He felt his terms were a little harsh, but there were no 'maybes' when a Yinglong hung over their heads. If Gwen suffered an episode while they were hunting, the best he could do was trigger her Ring, then immediately make for the woods.
At any rate, breakfast first - nutritious ration-soup and toast, with milk and Wildland honey.
His niece emerged ten odd minutes later, hair slicked back in a ponytail and padded up in her sneak-suit. The girl seemed taller, Jun felt, or was it her presence that changed?
“Uncle.” Gwen turned to face him seriously, ready to explain.
Jun took a sip of his military-coffee. The acrid taste must have been modelled on the credo that what couldn't kill you, woke you up.
“Care to explain yourself?”
“I shall.” His niece took a deep breath before opening her hands, within which was cupped the familiar glow of her Druidic Essence.
Jun leaned in.
It was different somehow. The energy felt alive, wilful, possessed by a commanding presence.
A Draconic presence.
Had all the dragon-souls she inadvertently consumed joined with the Druidic essence? Or had the girl always been in possession of such a thing, only to have it awaken now?
When he dipped a finger into the mana, he felt goosebumps all over.
Jun had fought Dragons before. Staring down an adult Dragon gave one the feeling of facing down a storm front stretching across the horizon, or a tsunami drawing back the tide, or a forest-fire that blackened the sky.
Spellcraft may have allowed Humans to harness the energies of the Planes, but nature easily reminded them that she was effortlessly more potent.
That was the feeling he got now from the dancing viridescent mana within Gwen's hands.
“Uncle Jun.” Gwen’s face was equal parts apprehension and excitement. “My Druidic Essence… I think its gone and taken on a new form!”
* * *
The dream ended.
She woke up.
Gwen was thankful for her uncle's concerned mien and soothing voice.
The first few seconds of her groggy wakefulness had been punctuated with a sudden desire for grievous violence. Especially as there was a man looming over her, pinning her arms. Though Edgar and Blackheath was a lifetime behind her now, she still roused once in a blue moon, breathless with remembrance.
Her precious, thousand-thread count cotton sheets were in tatters. Her clothes were likewise distressed. There was something in her mouth that she'd been biting, which turned out to be a cooking paddle swaddled with a pillowcase.
“I am okay now, Uncle Jun. Sorry..."
The guilt of punching her uncle was overshadowed by the lucid vision she had just undergone. Having experienced it twice, she was confident in recognising the phenomenon.
When was the last time she had Sang the Snake, dreamt the Dreaming? Not since her Xmas adventure with the girls, when they fought Wanka. She placed a hand to her chest and felt for the kinship engendered there. Did Almudj awaken? Had she awakened it? She recalled seeing the red rock of Uluru; there was something else - the Three Peaks! Lotus Peak! There was a white-jade hall and the Yinglong-
“I’ll be in the kitchen. Come out and explain yourself..."
Gwen nodded. She knew she owed her uncle an apology and explanation.
With Jun gone, Gwen felt for the change with her Astral Body.
Last time, when the Rainbow Serpent had left, a part of it had remained in her, a spark of primordial divinity that had made her special, given her a way to combat the hunger of the Void.
This time, Almudj's intervention was born from anger and possessiveness.
Calming herself, Gwen took account of the phenomena as rationally as she could.
Almudj was an old and natural existence, a mythical being from times immemorial. Dragons, for all intents and purposes, even Chinese ones, were largely the same thing. Creatures of magnificent elemental affinity, intimately linked to land and legend.
Assuming she was Almudj’s kin, wouldn’t that mean that her possessing its ‘essence’ made her an extension of Almudj’s domain, sharing its presence and being? If so, her voracious consumption of the ‘essence’ of creatures engendered by the Yinglong, wouldn’t it offend Almudj? After all, she had been cramming draconic vitality into her body intemperately for days. Just in the last twenty-four hours, she had Consumed at least a dozen deer, including a buck.
Eek~ Gwen bit her metaphoric tongue. Did that count as cheating on Almudj?
She switched to her mind's eye.
When she gazed inward, she saw that the fortifying vitality stolen from the draconic-creatures now nourished her Druidic Essence. For Gwen, her limited understanding of the mystical phenomena could only be clarified by the imperfect analogy that Almudj, a 'native flora' was subsuming the 'invasive' intruder. After all, her Rainbow-scaled kin hated usurpers and invaders more than anything.
For now, her 'Amuldj' Essence swelled with vigour, floating beside raw motes of lightning and Void. As for her Astral Body, it glowed a bit brighter but otherwise remained the same.
As for what Druidic Essence 2.0 portended.
She had no idea.
If nothing else, her Divination Sigil remained as quiet as a church mouse.
* * *
Once outside the Habitat and within the grey-zone, both uncle and niece were eager to see what her new mana portended.
“So, it's taken up with the dragon-juice,” Jun observed. “Try circulating it-”
His niece closed her eyes-
Jun self-buffed with Detect Magic. He saw the viridescent essence infuse his niece’s body. There was the distinct feeling of existential oppression again, though it was faint. It was stronger than what the pangolin could manage, but far from the wyvern.
“Can you cast anything with it?”
Gwen pointed a finger away from them.
A cobalt arc of plasma appeared in the distance. A regular old Lightning Bolt.
“Mao!” Jun noted the change in his nieces’ Affinity far more readily than Gwen herself, whose brows furrowed. “Try again!”
Gwen shook her head.
“I can’t work it into the Sigils.” The girl looked devastated by her continued inability to tap into her Almudj-Essence. “It’s the Spellcraft, I am sure. Our element-integration algorithms aren’t compatible with it. I can feel it trying to feed into my mana channels, but it's like my spells refuse to recognise it.”
Jun felt a wild thrill thumping through his chest.
“No! Lightning! Gwen! Give me the best blast of Lighting you possess! Lightning! PURE LIGHTNING!"
Gwen’s eyes glowed electric-blue as she channelled the maximum allotment she could muster. Jun's excitement was infectious; like a child who woke up remembering Chinese New Year had arrived.
A bolt of lightning ionised thirty-odd meters away, as thick as Gwen’s leg, its plasma so vivid as to leave a scar burning across their vision. An ear-splitting 'Crack!' resounded a split-second later, almost deafening the duo.
“What’s your affinity NOW!?” Jun held his niece's shoulder, his voice quivered.
“I- I don’t know." The pitch of the girl's voice rose at least two octaves. Her heart rate rose well over a hundred. Her breathing quickened as she tried to clear her head for a better measure of what was to come. “Let me try to gauge my mana-quotient.”
Jun helped Gwen with a quick breathing routine to soothe her mind.
"STOP!" Jun halted her. The grey-space was shuddering. Any more and they might deactivate the Portable Habitat.
Regardless, he was certain Gwen's affinity had gone through the proverbial roof. The clarity of her Lightning Mana may as well be directly harnessed from the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Lightning itself.
“I am not sure, but it’s using three-quarters of the mana I used to…” Her voice quivered. Like Jun, Gwen was trying to work out the calculations in her head. Without instruments, they could only manage an educated guess.
It was common knowledge that Elemental Affinity impacted casting cost and power. Previously at 4.8, Gwen enjoyed an unprecedented reduction in mana-cost of almost 50% of her Lightning Spell’s designated VMI cost. With a reduction of 25% on her current casting, if she had to ballpark a figure-
There was an old saying amongst Elementalists. 'Four's hard work; Five're talent, Six - good luck." It meant that no matter how hard a Mage laboured, they may never reach a baseline tier 6 elemental affinity.
“Tier 6?!” his niece squealed with glee. “I am tier 6, Uncle! Unbelievable! Amazing! Oh! I can't believe it!”
Before Jun could confirm her growth, his nostrils became filled with the soft scent of floral shampoo. His niece had wrapped her arms around his neck, hugging him fiercely.
“Tier 6!” Gwen’s gleeful voice choked with happiness. “That’s incredible, Uncle. I… God… I …”
Was she crying? Why was his niece crying? Jun couldn’t fathom why Gwen was so distraught. All he could do was wrap his arms around her slim shoulders and the small of her waist, feeling a patch of wetness built on his collar.
Jun had imagined a moment like this, in the past. His child had been accepted into an elite university, her future assured. He would congratulate her, and then she hugs him - like so, and then he would comfort her. When later he was told of his infertility, he had buried those fancies.
They remained in place, the girl sobbing and the uncle patting her back, for longer than either would have liked to admit.
“You have made me happier than you know.” His niece pulled away before facing him, her eyes wet and a little swollen, her white face melting his heart. Suddenly, she lifted her lips to his grizzled neck, then kissed him on the cheeks. “Thank you, Uncle Jun.”
“I am glad, t-that you’re happy.” Jun released the girl. The touch of her too-soft lips lingered on his chin, moist against his stubble. His mind struggled to find something suitable to say.
"I am happy... too," he remarked after a while, aghast at his tongue-tied response.
His niece materialised a handkerchief and applied the corners to her eyes.
“Sorry.” She sneezed into it. “Got a little 'too' emotional there. Ha! Not very becoming of me. Let me freshen up, then we can go. We have to relocate as soon as possible, right? We can test the new essence later when it's safer, probably back in Shanghai.”
“Yeah, that’s fine.” Jun felt more paternal at this moment than he had his entire life, finding himself drunk on the euphoria. He touched a hand to his chin, wondering how else he could dote on the girl, flushed with immeasurable affection. What else could they do?
"Maybe there's a herd of Void-deer somewhere too? You never know!"
Her uncle's insensible gesticulation had not escaped his niece’s notice, who bit her lips secretly before fleeing for the ensuite.
Watching her go, Jun felt a novel satisfaction.
Happiness? He wasn’t one for sentimentality, but if this ain't it- then no other satisfaction would suffice.