Ayxin pinched the centre of her brow-ridge. In her draconian form, she had a single horn - a little protruding ivory tooth forming a distinct and aesthetic addition to her androgynous appearance. Her eyes, however, had grown glacial with displeasure, the ultramarine of her vivid orbs resplendent against the obsidian slits which formed her iris.
Golos spat a glob of phlegm at their eldest sibling. The viscous gunk splattered on Ryxi’s Emperor-moth silk robes. Their eldest took the insult with measured dignity.
“I don’t know what to say.” Ayxin shook with emotions she didn’t know she still possessed. “The Drought Goddess. You expect us to believe that?”
“It's the truth!” Ryxi had chosen to bypass the stage of haughty denial, arriving straightaway at despairing defeat. Their eldest had presented himself in his Draconian form, a slender male with a feminine silhouette, the equivalent of showing one’s belly. It was degrading, but it drew sympathy from Ayxin.
Ryxi knew he had brought shame upon the lineage by not attacking the intruders, but what did his siblings expect him to do? The last time he had attacked an outsider was two decades ago. The last time he fought Golos, the wyvern had stripped off half his precious scales, after which Ayxin had to intervene. “It was terrifying! They were slaughtering my stock like Merfolk! There was a hideous creature, eating them alive! Alive, Ayxin! Swallowing them whole! The Death Gila, it stabbed the buck in the EYES with its PENIS!”
Golos shifted its impressive bulk.
“It kills with its penis?” Golos demanded. “How big are we talking?”
Ryxi made the dimension with his hands.
“That’s nothing, are we talking, prehensile or what?”
“I think it had a mouth on the end.”
“…” Golo’s reptilian face took on a contemplative air.
“… Lined with teeth!” Ryxi added.
“This thing is an abomination!” Golos declared, snapping his maw, shifting his barbed tail. “We have to kill it!”
“You two idiots!” Ayxin snarled. “Silence!”
“Grrrrgh!” Golos snapped back. He hated it when Ayxin treated him like a wyrmling. They were almost the same age, and he had twin draconic-lineages.
“Hissaaaak!” Ayxin’s face contorted, extending a forked tongue.
“Aaeeeee!” Ryxi bolted for cover.
With a sinuous twist of its densely muscled back, Golos swung its tail across the plateau like a whip, stirring dust, pebble and loose plants unfortunate enough to be caught in its path.
“Jilg Soti!” Ayxin spat from her petal-like lips, invoking the bloodline magic gifted from their mutual father. Though Golos was many times the brawler compared to Ayxin, it was no match when it came to the most prominent of the Yinglong's endowments - the ability to invoke Magical effects via sheer will and dragon-tongue. Few dragon-kin could develop the power of the pureblood, and even fewer could master it. Ayxin was an exception. That was why she was her Father's favourite.
A few inches from her face, Golos’s spiked tail came to a halt.
“You cheat!” Golos gnashed its teeth. “Try fighting me with your body! Your REAL body!”
“We need to apprehend the assailants!” Ayxin’s scales bristled with malice. “Fighting me is only going to delay father’s wishes.”
“Fight me, pissant!”
Golos knelt, crashing against the granite and sending up another dust cloud.
“Guuaaarrgh!” Golos opened its muzzle.
“Don’t you dare!” Ayxin glared at her brother coldly.
“Huurrrgh-“ The shriek of thunder and lightning rose to a crescendo.
Before the rumbling blast of superheated plasma could emerge, Ayxin commanded Golos to close its mouth, catching his breath-attack halfway. Golos’ eyes bulged as a surge of thunderous lightning travelled up its sinus and blasted out its nose and ear holes. For all its comical effect, Golos felt as though a small mountain had fallen onto his head.
Hammered by his own breath, he slumped onto the plateau.
“Tut-tut.” Ryxi watched Golos’ suffering with evident glee. “Idiot!”
“Can you find them?” Ayxin turned her wrathful mien against their eldest sibling. “Your answer better be 'YES', else I am feeding you to Golos.”
Ryxi’s retort choked in his mouth.
“Y-yes.” His uncertain answer was full of apprehension.
Why the hell were his siblings so strong? Their youngest, Golos, he could understand. His mother had been the alpha of the southern-range for half a century before the Yinglong took an interest. As for Ayxin, the dragon-kin had shown up one day at the mount, demanding to see Father. Ryxi had then taken Ayxin, who knew only her human form, to see their esteemed patriarch.
It had been at least two centuries since. The mountainous realm of their father remained as immutable as the three peaks themselves. When half a century ago the Humans came to parley, it was Ayxin who had taken care of their affairs, with the humans conceding the entirety of the territory they called Anhui in return for peace and some trade.
At first, a non-aggression treaty was in place, but then idiots like Golos began to wander from the Mount, taking whatever they wanted from the humans below. The humans then raided them back, though their esteemed father had always turned a blind eye. It was impossible to know the patriarch's magnificent mind, and so Ryxi could only guess as to what the Yinglong would want with these poachers. For sure, Father had no interest in punishing the humans for stealing deer. As for Angkar, Ryxi couldn't even recall who the pangolin was supposed to be. He was just an essence-spawn, one of the numberless thousands.
Ryxi activated the bloodline magic of the White Serpents, a form of greater Clairvoyance tied to the mist that permanently surrounded the land.
“I asked the Mists to distinguish their passing,” the Draconic-sprite explained. “They have no scent, that’s why you couldn’t find them, their equipment makes them almost invisible.”
A large pool of water appeared in front of the two humanoid dragon-kin. The two of them leaned in closer, jostling for space against the unconscious Golos. Dragon-form was great and all, but there was only so much space on top of the peaks - if they all took their natural forms, at least one of them would have to hover by the edge awkwardly.
“Nothing!” Ayxin hissed. "There's no one there!"
The scrying pool showed an empty patch of forest.
Ryxi wasn't entirely sure if White Serpents could sweat, though his scales did secrete a slimy substance.
“They may be in a Pocket Dimension. The humans often hide in such spaces.”
“Bah! Keep an eye out.” Ayxin approached the comatose body of her half-sibling wyvern. Golos’ breath was shallow and feeble. Cobalt oozed from every orifice on his face. “You are not to rest or sleep until they are found.”
“I obey, Ayxin.” Ryxi’s prideful draconic heart bled blue blood as he bowed.
“Irisv!” Ayxin touched a finger to Golos’ face.
Healing energy infused Golos’ head.
The restoration continued for half a minute as Golos' torn scales mended, his eyes returned to clarity, and his serpentine neck once again rose into the air.
“What happened?” Golos looked around confusedly.
“You lost consciousness.” Ayxin folded her arms. “Rest, Golos. You’re on standby. As soon as this 'Drought Goddess' makes an appearance, we’re moving to intercept.”
Golos glanced at Ryxi, who mediated with a swirl of mist entering and exiting his nostrils. The memory of their last exchange came flooding back. Golos knew he lost, again. He could always ambush Ayxin, of course, but that would be meaningless, not to mention Father would be very angry indeed.
“Fine.” Golos shook its massive head. He would have to take it out on their prey. “I obey.”
* * *
Gwen emerged into the heavily shaded pine forest, slipping from the grey-space of their Portable Habitats’ Pocket Dimension.
Jun followed shortly, after which Gwen retrieved her Habitat, stowing it within her ring.
“This way.” Jun lead the way with his peerless orienteering.
Their destination was six hours away by foot, including shortcuts undertaken via Flight, Feather Fall and Jump.
“The gorge should have some fascinating fauna as well,” Jun was speaking of the marked map they had received from Anhui’s Rangers. “Draconic Mermen. They say that some may even be Lightning, although those would be the elite warriors.”
More lightning affinity, Gwen couldn’t help but feel her lips curl.
“Do you think Consume has a limit?”
“It must have,” Jun pointed out. “There is balance in all things. Even if it is capable of taking you beyond tier 7, there has to be a cost.”
"I don't feel any different," Gwen assured her uncle, though she was inclined to agree, there had to be a limit.
Once her fevered celebration cooled, she was forced to acknowledge the unnatural state of her affinity.
Jun had informed her earlier that possessing a tier 6 Lightning Element made her the top five percent of all Elemental Casters. Additionally, that she was only seventeen meant she had room to grow as well.
Unilaterally, what she gained was raw power; abstractly, what she gained was future autonomy.
The IIUC selection looked that much brighter, her objectives, both immediate and distant, appeared closer and within reach.
For the prospect of her ultimate freedom, she wept.
For her uncle's paternal generosity, she cried.
In a way, Jun's warning was more superstition than fact, but Gwen trusted her Uncle’s intuition because her Divination Sigil had been buzzing like an alarm clock since the moment they had left for the gorge.
When she made mention of this to her Uncle, they had stopped, hid, then set an ambush. When nothing appeared for almost an hour, they once again began their trek.
“Perhaps something in the gorge?” Gwen queried her Uncle. “We might get swarmed by Mermen, or ambushed.”
“We’ll be cautious,” Jun assured her. “Does your Divination pertain to yourself or our quest?”
“Just me,” Gwen replied. “Mayuree said that our trip was going to be very fortuitous. She’s right so far! Bang on the dot. Gods, I still can't believe it, tier 6!”
“Yes, yes, tier 6.” Jun chuckled. “Alright, let’s keep going. We're just getting started!”
* * *
“They’re headed for the Buxian Gorge.” Ryxi displayed the vision for his half-siblings, refracted from his conjured scrying pool.
“There’s a female.” Golos licked his lips. “She looks delicious.”
“That’s the Drought Goddess,” Ryxi pointed to Jun.
“…” Ayxin wondered if Ryxi had spent so long holed up in the Sky Lake that he had become a carp himself.
“Pretty big for a human female,” Golos grunted. “Looks tough.”
“I’ll take the man.” Ayxin pointed at the vision in the pool, rolling her eyes. “You can’t handle him.”
Golos’ scales bristled.
Ayxin waited until her half-brother finished stroking his machismo, glaring at Golos until he averted his gaze.
“Ryxi, I don’t want them seeing us until we’re close. I am going to separate the girl for Golos. My Misty Realm needs to catch our 'Drought God' by surprise, else they'll teleport away.”
“Then I shall coax the sea of clouds.” Ryxi lowered his head. “There shall be rain and thunder to mask our approach.”
“Good. Golos, take care with the girl. She has to be brought before Father alive. No eating her.”
“Do be careful.” Ayxin scrutinised her half-brother, ensuring that his wounds were healed. “No one is going to help you if you become fodder like Angkar. From the sounds of it, she's got a Death Gila as a Familiar. If she's a full-fledged Necromancer, flee.”
* * *
The gorge came into sight.
The sheer drop was best traversed via a free fall from the cliff using Feather Fall, though that would expose the two of them to sharp-eyed spotters wary of churning shrouds and cascading mist.
Gwen and Jun discretely made their way down the mossy crag, avoiding the gruel-like slick and the occasional block of deceptively anchored mud. She slipped once or twice, though Jun always caught her, once by the scruff, another time by the wrist.
They arrived twenty minutes later at a metasequoia bursting from a fissure, forming an umbrella over the scene below. The duo was resting above a Merfolk village, a sizeable one with a hundred huts and what looked like extensive warrens dug into the granite. It was the first time Gwen had seen a Demi-human village. She studied the layout intently, noting with disquiet how much it resembled those rural communities she had seen on her previous travels.
The two stretched their cloaks between them, forming a camouflaged canvas. The Japanese made military equipment astonished her with its versatility.
Jun produced a pair of binoculars.
He jotted down notes on to the map of the gorge, marking down patrols, numbers, and type, explaining the legend.
“Here, you try. It even works with Detect Magic.”
“Carl Zeiss AG 70 - 300mm, made in Germany.” Jun noted his niece’s interest in the make and manufacturing of the ocular device. “It was a gift from your grandfather.”
Gwen adjusted the nose piece, then placed the device over her eyes.
The Merfolk below looked almost human. The males stood just over five-foot, discounting their crest-fin, with a slick dermis which suggested they were likely descended from eels. The females were smaller, with thinner frames and proportionally longer limbs. Despite the familiar silhouette of their bodies, the males had a larger upper torso, while the females had wide birthing hips. As with most Merfolk, their faces were horrendously ugly, with wide lips that looked like open sores, and milky eyes with indistinct pupils. Despite their eel-like nature, their foreheads had scales that resembled markings.
The ones Gwen could spot radiated a strong presence of Water. When Gwen willed the device to zoom in upon an abnormally large hut, however, she caught the distinct glow of Elemental Lightning, its motes of mana sharp and distinct.
“Four or five of them.” Gwen marked their locations on the map.
“Good.” Jun tapped the cartographic chart. “You plan and execute the operation this time. I’ll be back up. The younglings are tier 1 at best, their warriors about 3. The Lightning-Warriors would normally be General-Class, an equivalent of tier 5, but I wouldn’t worry about their chances against you.”
At the sound of his behest, his niece regarded the village with an unreadable expression.
“Can you do it?” Jun wondered what the girl’s hesitation was.
“Yeah.” Gwen met his eyes. Strangely, they looked mortified. Was this the same sorceress who had just cornered and slaughtered all that deer?
He put a hand to her back, feeling the tension in her spine.
The girl flinched, her heart raced.
Jun reminded himself that the girl was seventeen and green, that she hadn't Purged a Village before. She was a survivor, but one warzone did not make a warrior. It took the death of teammates, friends, acquaintances, again and again, to make a man or woman stone-hearted. He had no desire to wish calamity on his niece, but the reality remained she had to acclimatise herself to walking the Path of Violent Conflict.
Mercy to one's enemies was cruelty to oneself.
The secondary objective of their poaching adventure was to whet the girl's edge and hone her killing instinct. Jun hoped the girl recalled his promise that she would walk away from this trip with more than just a Spirit.
“They’re only fish,” he assured the girl, finding her hesitation endearing. “You can’t make a Jiang-bing without breaking a few eggs. No sushi roll without fish-men roe! If we leave them, they’ll grow to be a menace.”
His banter seemed to have run up against a Gwen-shaped wall.
Jun waited while the girl stared into the middle distance, ruminating her options. When she opened her eyes again, they were clarified with renewed purpose and determination.
“I don't want to kill beyond our objective," the girl answered. Gwen looked for a spot that would allow her to slip into the gorge.
“So be it. If that's your choice, then we wait.” Jun halted her progress.
When he and Hai were boys, Guo had taken them to the Wuxi Frontier and made them slaughter Merfolk until their mother threatened Guo that she would take her sons home, with or without him.
For now, he would bear her tender burden and buy her the time she needed to come around. That was the fatherly thing to do, wasn't it?
He pointed a finger toward the darkening clouds.
“Rain is coming,” he elucidated his niece, instructing her to observe the volumetric increase in Elemental Water. “Always remember, people, time, and place, without the congruency of all three, you will always be at a disadvantage. Let the rain obscure everything; then you begin your mission of mercy.”
She observed the Merfolk below, some by themselves, others in twos and threes. Her breath felt heavy, the atmosphere full of moisture. An oppressive emotion she couldn't name made her abdomen quiver with discomfort. Her fingers felt frigid despite the Enchantment embedded in her skin-suit. She glanced at her uncle, who nodded back.
She closed her eyes, not wanting to see the village life.
Side by side, the hunters waited for the first drop of rain.
* * *
The spawning pool simmered, warmed to perfect brooding temperature by quasi-magical firestones.
Beside it, a sleekly shaped Merfolk, a female, decorated the sides with precious gems. Her name was Glugurp, meaning the 'gleaming of silver streams at midnight'.
Glugurp’s mate, Bhu, was the best warrior in the village.
Bhu had been blessed by the Dragon God of Lotus Peak and could use the endowment of heaven to punish the tribe’s enemies.
His lineage made Bhu very desirable as a mate, and he had since spawned with many females.
But Glugurp knew herself to be special to Bhu; every time Glugurp set up her spawning pool, Bhu would bring her insects, sweet fruits, and even flesh from creatures he had hunted.
Tonight was a special night because the rain would be plentiful and the thunder very loud.
The Water-Priest had said that children hatched during this time would receive the blessing of the Master of the Mount. It meant that maybe, some of her spawn would be like Bhu.
If enough of them survived, it would make Glugurp very influential in the village indeed. She may even become a Sacred Mother.
One day, her children may even invade the village across the gorge, usurp their hunting ground.
When the tribe became large enough, they could even leave the Dragon’s Mountain.
Thinking about this made Glugurp very excited.
It also made Glugurp angry and upset.
Hairless ape-men ruled the outside world. Not the ape-men of the woods, by the Sky Lake, but ape-men wearing exotic skins and wielding terrific powers. The elders had said that these ‘Humans’ were all blessed by their God. They had the means to control fire, water, earth, everything, even the heavenly thunder.
Humans were scary, Glugurp agreed. But they were a future threat. What they endured here and now, was what troubled her mind.
During her last spawning, half of her little ones had to be offered to the Dragons. The village Elder even offered her most beautiful daughter, Gui, whose scales were blessed by the golden sun, to the Thunder Wyvern. The Elder hoped that perhaps, the indescribable beauty of Gui would entice the wyvern to spawn with her, thereby empowering the village.
Glugurp too had thought Golos was going to mate with Gui, plant his seed in her pool, a thing her daughter had meticulously decorated for the Wyvern, lining it with all the precious babbles in the village.
Then the wyvern came, but not to spawn.
The thrice-cursed Golos ate her daughter.
Gui screamed just once; then she became two halves.
Glugurp wasn’t sure what she had expected.
Why did the elders say that Wyvern lusted after Gui? There were plenty of others the wyvern could have eaten.
Then came the famine.
Winter was unseasonably cold.
Only a dozen of her children survived.
Then came the fire.
They said a dragon started it.
Or it was an accident.
No one knew the truth.
All she knew, was that she lost more of her precious ones.
Then there were raids.
Some against them, some they orchestrated against the other tribes.
After many summers, Glugurp was left alone.
Her pretty ones had died, all of them.
When she looked at the other females' elvers, her chest grew sore.
But, the village survived.
It was the wet season again.
It was time to spawn again.
Bhu would have to do his best; she hopes his body will keep up. He was no longer a young fish, and there are many females.
Though she alone would be the first.
A strange sound. A fallen cone, perhaps, from one of the dragon-trees, dislodged by the rain.
Glugurp went to investigate.
The gorge resounded with the pitter-patter of rain.
But where were the frogs' songs? What happened to the night-birds trilling from the shelter of their bowers?
The lack of nature sounds frightened her.
Bhu, she told herself. I need to find Bhu, my dragon-hearted love.
“What has happened?”
Her neighbour. A young female, though not as beautiful as Glugurp, came to see if Bhu had arrived. Glugurp does not like the upstart, whose only worth was her youth. Bhu had visited her a few times, though not as many times as Glugurp.
“Nothing, go back to your hut,” Glugurp snapped at the young female.
Glugurp hoped that Bhu wasn’t on his way to see her now, for they may miss each other, then that young one would receive his seed first.
Nonetheless, she was afraid; she had a gut feeling. Glugurp was very good with her gut-feelings. Were she not so fertile, she would have become a Water-Priest.
Glugurp made her way to the Elder’s hut. The largest building in the village.
During the Tribe’s glory days, it held over two thousand warriors.
Now they have only a hundred.
One of the reasons why Bhu was so important.
The Elders knew this; this is why they had asked Bhu to become an Elder as well, even though he lived a mere twenty summers.
The other females were busy preparing their huts, decorating their pools.
A few of the young males gawked at Glugurp.
Glugurp was very attractive.
Glugurp has silvery, shimmering scales, and very supple limbs. Her abdomen was very large for a Merfolk of her size, meaning she was very fecund and could produce many eggs.
Glugurp bared her teeth at them; the young men gurgled shyly.
They would not receive a chance to spawn with Glugurp; not while Bhu was around, they knew this.
Still, they were young warriors, useful in their own way.
She has made it to the large hut.
Where are the guards? Glugurp wondered.
There were usually two burly warriors standing guard. Kar and Vurg. One season, she had spawned with Kar. He is a good eel, but not as good as Bhu.
The ground was soft with mud. Glugurp saw misshapen footsteps leading into the Chief’s hut. The squall was heavier now; the air was growing electric.
Should she enter without announcement?
The Chief would beat her.
Not if Bhu has anything to say.
“Glugurp is coming in,” Glugurp said to no one.
The inside of the hut was dark.
Where was the light?
There was usually moss or magic, just enough to see.
Pottery shattering. A drinking vessel.
What was that?! Glugurp felt her heart jump.
She walked forward slowly.
She raised her voice.
The rain drowned out her voice.
The hut has many rooms.
She proceeds to the guard room.
Many of the warriors had designs on her. This pleased Glugurp. She can persuade them to do things for her, even though they were afraid of Bhu.
“Jukl, Fup, Dui, are you here? Where is Bhu?”
She smelled it before she saw it.
Merfolk blood, the colour of bruised cerulean.
Jukl was slumped forward, his head and torso were missing.
Fup was missing his chest and right arm.
Dui's his head was attached, but it looked like something chewed through his lower abdomen, then attempted to decapitate him.
Glugurp felt her blood run colder than usual. She began to secrete a milky ooze all over her skin, a defence mechanism.
She turned around.
“Guards!” she called out. “GUARDS!”
A flash of lightning.
Then a sound of thunder rolled in.
The rain was falling harder now.
For some strange reason, she felt a sensation like the time Bhu had taken her up onto a cliff, and they dared each other to dive into the depth of the pool far below.
Glugurp quietly exited the guard room.
The second room did not burst open with burly Warriors.
There was ash on the floor. The dark motes stuck to her feet.
Maybe out of morbid curiosity, or perhaps it was the courage given to her by Bhu, Glugurp approached the double-door of the Chief’s meeting room.
She hesitated at the threshold, then pushed.
The door opened.
A huge frog… no - a toad - was trying to swallow Bhu!
It was swallowing Bhu whole.
That flash of lightning and thunder, was it from Bhu?
Her Chief lay to one side, mangled, his skin was charred, his eye sockets smoked.
Bhu did not do this. Bhu wasn’t that powerful.
Four other warriors like Bhu, one of whom was Bhu’s spawn from another mate, lay here and there, unmoving. One of them even looked awake, though his eyes were wide and vacant.
Glugurp couldn’t help herself.
“Let go of Bhu!”
She spat a glob of gastric acid at the giant frogman, conjuring a water-missile to attack its face.
She once had the potential to be a Water-Priest. It was known.
The toad’s chest convulsed, there was a sucking sound.
Bhu was gone.
Glugurp stared, disbelieving.
Her dragon-hearted Bhu, just like that?
"Get out of here! Get out! Go!"
"Gwen, that's a female..."
"Gwen! Do you know how much that one female can spawn?! Our combat doctrine prioritises the females!"
Glugurp did not understand the voice that called out to her in the dark.
Glugurp recognised the sound of human magic. It was extremely distinct, the melody of its incantation like nothing that could exist in nature.
A dark shadow consumed her lower limbs.
Glugurp lost her balance and fell to the floor.
The pain came. Her legs were gone!
“Wuaah, whuaaah!” Glugurp flailed. “It hurts… ah... ah… Bhu…”
What was happening? Why was this happening?
The monstrous toad plucked another dragon-blessed warrior from the floor.
WHY! Glugurp felt the warmth drain from her lower body. Why this cruelty? What had they done to deserve this? The Dragon Gods! Why weren’t they there to defend Glugurp? Protect their people? They had sacrificed so much, lost so many of their children just to appease the powers that be!
Her spawning pool glistened.
It was supposed to be filled with eggs by tonight.
“GUUAARRGK! DAMN YOU!” Glugurp cried out, only to have her cry drowned out by thunder. Her pretty Gui. All her pretty ones, gone. Gone forever. The Gods were cruel, and they don’t care. “WHERE ARE YOU?! GOLOS!”
A blast of thunder erupted overhead.
The hut’s roof splintered, flying every which way, scattering all over.
The sound was so loud, its eruption so intense, that Glugurp was sure she might never hear ever again.
Not that it mattered now, she was dying.
The rain cascaded into the room, splattering over the bloody floor, over the stunned warriors, over two vaguely humanoid silhouettes, over the tenebrous form of the toad, over Glugurp's body.
Glugurp’s eyelids enfolded her orbs, wiping away the blurry vision.
There was a flash of Lightning; then a human silhouette abruptly disappeared.
Next came a thunderous bell-beat of wings.
Glugurp could barely keep herself conscious. The rain was freezing. Had it always been so cold? Wasn't it summer? It was spawning season, she was sure.
A familiar shape landed atop Glugurp.
A cruel face Glugurp would never forget, not even as her world grew too dark to see.
He was here.
He was here to avenge Bhu, to avenge all her pretty ones, doomed to be never born. A petty master who came to avenge the theft of his livestock.
The gorge was lovely, dark and deep; it was only now that Glugurp could sleep.
The Gods listened, after all.