“DOGGING IT UP!” Gwen announced to the party. “If I screw it up and start barfing all over - nobody laugh.”
“Ooo!” Lulan clapped, her eyes full of anticipation.
"We won't," Richard promised, his legs casually crossed as he leaned on Kusu's shoulder.
“EEee!!” Ariel presented itself with a flash and a flourish, swishing its tail.
Gwen drew an iris-searing Conjuration glyph in the air, first beginning with the Major incantations, then moving onto minor adjustments before finishing with the final invocation.
“... Hound Pack!”
The party collectively held their breath.
The first Deerhound emerged, sleek and semi-draconic, shimmering with static-electricity.
Then another, a more robust copy of the first, with long, blade-like ears.
Another and another, until all seven were facing Gwen's astounded companions.
“D-Draconic Hounds?” Kusu blurted, his jaw failing to re-hinge itself as the hounds began to sniff the party members, recording the scent of their allies.
“Seven?” Richard implored.
“I can’t seem to get past that number,” Gwen confessed. “Instructor Chen said it's a matter of experience. Maybe when I actually reach tier 6, I could manage more, but that's all I got for now.”
Gwen drew another Glyph in the air.
An eighth hound emerged, heavier than the others.
The Deerhound's noble mien reached Lulan’s shoulders; when it breathed, two sets of electrified-air ejected from its dark nostrils. Its eyes were two cobalt orbs of vivid lightning with a dark slit at its centre.
Kusu’s heart violently seized when Lulan carelessly embraced Gwen’s alpha-hound with an open-armed, full body hug.
“IT'S SO SILKY!” Lulan rubbed her cheeks against the dog’s forehead as it licked her hand. Gwen’s Deerhounds were modelled after the short-furred hunting hounds of Scotland, possessing a fine coat of short silvery fur that oozed luxury when stroked. "Oooh! Its jowls are super soft as well!"
Kusu back-paddled cautiously. According to the spell’s description, these were tier 4 compelled-elementals. Though doglike, Kusu knew well the deceptive nature of assigning standardised ‘tiers’ to Magical Creatures. When imbued with draconic-essence, even a deer could become a significant threat.
“What beautiful animals.” Petra patted a dog with each hand, feeling the warmth radiating from the beasts’ scalps. “It is hard to believe that they are elementals. Why are they so real?”
“Chen says it’s because I am concurrently running Transmutation,” Gwen remarked helpfully. “That and I love my dogs!”
“You used to have a dog?”
Caught by her own disinformation, Gwen rummaged through her memories for an answer.
“We have greyhounds in Australia.” She threw out a bone for her companions. Gwen couldn’t possibly inform Petra that she had religiously attended every Easter Show, window shopping for canines while speaking to their breeder-owners, fantasising about rearing a big Wolfhound or a stout Dane. Even now, she could recall the sensation of running her hand over those big, beautiful canines, through their fur, feeling the warm drool dripping down their paunchy jowls.
Her hounds stood to attention, skipped away from the gang, then formed into a wedge with Ariel at its centre.
“Oh my GOD.” Percy mouthed, his eyes glimmering with awe and desire. Like Gwen, he had always wanted a big dog as well. “Sis, you’ve killed me.”
“Hahaha!” Gwen laughed, her hands gripping her brother's shoulders, hysterically gloating with pleasure. There was a particular euphoria that drugged the brain when others praised one’s pets or children, and Gwen was drowning in a pool of it.
“Can you incant…” Kusu asked only the important questions. “Void Hounds?”
Petra's ears perked up.
Gwen shook her head.
“I’ll need A LOT of vitality for that,” she informed her companions. “Also, I’d rather not risk Void-burn. I had those a few times, in the beginning, and each time I was knocked out for hours.”
Just imagining a mana burn that involved both void matter and vitality was enough to make the party grimace.
“So, what can your dogs do?” Richard paced around the alpha, inspecting its handsome features.
“Ariel!” Gwen commanded.
'Showing' was worth a thousand words.
As one, the dogs formed into a W.
The pack sat - rolled over - then swapped places as though in a marching band, responding to each, 'EE!' with mechanical efficiency.
‘Clap! Clap! Clap!' Lulan was beside herself.
Ariel rose into the air.
“EE~ Eee!! EE!”
“They’re going to scout for prey, see what’s in the surrounding area,” Gwen declared boastfully. “Originally, the pack is supposed to be led by the Bloodhound. That’s what Morden had intended, although I’ve got Ariel.”
The party looked upward.
Ariel levitated above like an airborne general, resplendent even in its mundane combat form.
“Hah-hah-hah-hah~.” The dogs fanned out into the knee-high bush, their panting growing fainter as they crashed through the hilly peat.
“Let’s proceed.” Gwen pointed northward. “MY Ariel and MY Deerhounds will take care of ALL our scouting! HAHA! No more stupid orienteering!”
“Wonderful!” Lulan applauded, admiration gushing from every pore.
Petra and Kusu looked toward Richard.
“Gwen.” Richard implored his cousin with great gentleness, placing both hands on Gwen’s shoulders before turning her leftward toward a northerly direction. “Your dogs have gone the opposite way.”
"That's not north?" Gwen pointed a rudely erect finger toward the direction her dogs had gone.
“That’s east,” Richard informed her with great solemnity. “North-North-West is that way.”
The euphoria drained from Gwen's face.
“Lea!” Richard summoned his Spirit. The Undine couldn't 'fly' in the Spellcraft sense; instead, she levitated at will with complete freedom of movement.
“Heeheehee!” The Undine flittered about Ariel playfully, mocking its master’s directional-blindness as below, Gwen grudgingly redirected the hounds.
“Ariel.” Gwen moped. “Follow Lea’s direction…”
“Contact!” Gwen called out.
An hour in, the Water Ghost’s lair could just be seen, buried under a massive mound. The strange landscape reminded Gwen of a colossal ant-hill, disrupting the flat expanse of the muddy peat bog.
When Gwen had asked Richard why the bog had evaporated, her cousin informed her that the PLA had drained it in anticipation of the Canal's final stages, which required the ground to be thoroughly dried and compressed.
After half a minute, two of Gwen’s Deerhounds came running, pursued by Water Ghosts.
“God they're ugly!” Percy cried out as the Ghosts came into view.
Gwen mouthed a silent 'Strewth!' in turn. Ugly wouldn't even begin to describe these simian fiends.
The leading male was a specimen almost five-foot tall, broad of chest, hulking in its bearing with steel-cable arms. Its face was a bedraggled mess of fur, moss and other unnamable growths, hiding two beady eyes glowing with dark maleficence. The creature had the gait of a biped, though it ran expertly on all fours, using its elongated arms in the same fashion as gorillas to propel its body forward.
The second was a male as well, though smaller, begging the question of whether or not it was an adolescent or an inferior specimen.
The party fanned out with Richard taking the lead, attended by Gwen and then the others.
“Wanna try out your dogs?” Richard inquired.
“Sure,” Gwen agreed. “Ariel!”
Her dogs sallied forth.
About a hundred meters from the party, the two Water Monkeys stopped. The alpha sniffed the air, then turned directly toward Gwen and her company, half hidden in the ankle-deep sedge.
“See that? They have poor vision, but possess a keen sense of scent,” Richard pointed out. “There’s no ambushing these bastards.”
The Water Monkeys turned to flee, but by then it was too late.
Three of Gwen’s Deerhounds closed in behind their prey, growling dangerously.
The other two made an about-face, likewise turning on the Monkeys.
A throaty confluence of bone-throbbing growling filled the low valley, masking the presence of yet another three dogs hidden in the shallow sedge. The stink of ozone radiating from Gwen's electrified animals was overpowering.
“Did you teach 'em that?”
“Chen trained Ariel,” Gwen smirked. “Ariel’s the top dog up there. I suppose that makes me the sheepherder.”
Indeed, from up on high, Ariel shimmered gently, commanding Gwen’s hounds.
The foremost hound feigned an assault.
An unexpected howl pierced the soggy air, rippling from the Water Monkey’s chest like a banshee's wail.
“YIP! YIP! YIP! YIP!”
The smaller of the two began to beat its chest, emitting an awful racket from its peeling lips, baring inch-long fangs set into pink, mangled flesh.
“They’re calling for the rest of the pack!” Richard cracked his neck. “Lea! Shields on everyone! Maximum repulsion! We’re forcing them toward Gwen’s dogs!”
Gwen's irises gleamed with excess Lightning as she loaded up a tier 5 Evocation.
Lulan fell into a defensive stance, her pupils turning a vivid ochre.
A swarm of dagger-like implements materialised around Kusu, floating placidly above the party, ready to intercept whatever came their way.
Petra’s envious silhouette shimmered, becoming wreathed in a brilliant shell.
Percy hopped from foot to foot, trying to spot the incoming pack.
Down on the bog-flat where the two Monkeys had been cornered, Gwen’s pack met their quarry in melee. After a feigned snap to the neck, the second quickly nipped at the larger of the two targets, trying to hamstring the alpha. Dextrously, the first Water Ghost dodged, only to be met with a third dog, who had anticipated its sidestep. The smaller Monkey attempted to assist its companion - but was bodily checked by yet another growling hound. As it dived for cover, a shadow leapt from the sedge, barrelling into its chest and pinning it against the soggy turf. Beside the fallen Water Ghost, its companion faired no better. The sneak-attack ripped into its calves, forcing the Monkey to its knees while another ambushing hound tore out a chunk of its arm.
"SCHEEEII! YIP! YIP! YIP!"
A series of bone-chilling screeches polluted the air.
Its battle cry was suddenly cut short.
Gwen's alpha hound made its move, assailing the larger Water Ghost from behind, sending it crashing into the mud.
The rest of the pack fell upon the shrieking simian, tearing at its abdomen and torso as it frantically struggled. One of the dogs took a blow to the chest before snapping back, catching the Monkey’s paw in its jaw.
“Shii…shii…” The creature attempted to cover its face with a mangled limb. Gwen's alpha wouldn’t have it, her hound tore away at the Ghost's forearms with an enthusiasm that would have made a starving Gwen proud, ripping out rags of bone-white sinew.
“OH MY GOD!” Percy paled, watching the dogs at their terrible work. “GWEN! They’re eating the damn thing alive!”
“SHUT UP!” Richard shouted over Percy’s incredulous utterance. “STAY DOWN! THEY’RE HERE!”
And they were.
The waterlogged loam surrounding the party bulged like diseased pustules before erupting into full-sized Water Ghosts.
“Their elemental teleport is kind of like a Blink!” Lulan shouted over the sound of splashing water. “They can't use it unless they're ambushing though. It'll get worse when we’re indoors!”
“LULU!” Kusu screeched. “DON’T let the water from their fur touch your lips! It’s poisonous!”
Diseased, Gwen corrected Kusu mentally. Virulent bacteria likely inundated the water cascading from the damned thing's mangy fur.
“Ariel!” Gwen channelled a spell into her Familiar. It was far easier launching spells from up on high than at her eye-level, especially when they were ankle-deep in mossy turf.
A total of six adult Water Ghosts emerged about two meters from the party’s right, taking advantage of the momentum of their innate water-Blink to throw their bodies into melee range.
"FARRRRRK!" Percy fumbled with his Salt Bolts. He was beginning to realise that competitive duelling was distinctly different from half a dozen disease laden barrelling baboons frothing at the lips.
Richard waited until the last moment before activating his Shields; driving Percy up the wall, or at least up Petra's crystal coated form.
Forward facing semi-dome barriers swiftly negated the Monkeys’ momentum, catching four of the creatures mid-air. A hidden jet of water caught the victims as they spun, turning the Shield into a cocoon.
The remaining two broke through.
“GOT IT! BROAD STROKE! SWEEP!”
Lulan’s gleaming Iron Blade caught the first Monkey across the chest, biting viciously into flesh and bone, stopping the creature's momentum cold. Her second strike proved a second too slow, nicking the Monkey across the shoulder as it dexterously contorted its upper body.
Gwen had been the nursing her tier 5 Evocation with meticulous care. Jacked up on adrenaline and fuming with thunderous wrath, she channelled the spell through Ariel's horns.
Despite her growing competence, the hyper-tier Evocation remained a considerable challenge. Without her teammates, it was unlikely that she could enjoy fifteen-seconds of uninterrupted, stress-free invocation.
Her first Ball Lightning caught the last Ghost that had slipped their defences, erupting into a white-hot sphere of plasma as its latent energies unleashed.
The remaining four, likewise ejaculated from Ariel’s incandescent horns, erupted where Richard had momentarily immobilised their quarry, ripping through their targets as the liquid cocoon turned into superheated steam.
Gwen materialised her second Familiar. Now was the perfect time to stock up on vitality.
There was no need for elaborate transformations. Caliban slithered straight for the most wounded creature, pinned by Lulan’s sword into the ground like a kabob, opening its carapace with gleeful abandonment.
The lame Monkey thrashed against the slab of iron, ripping its wound; its flailing claws scored bloody gashes all over Caliban’s pulsating purple flesh, spraying ichor over the dark turf.
But as with the proverbial honey badger, Caliban didn't give a shit.
Caliban's lamprey lips launched for the Monkey's face.
It all happened so fast.
Percy stood in the midst of splashing water, exploding lightning, crushing blades of iron, the yipping and growling of dogs, throngs of screaming, insane Monkeys, and a yawning Petra.
His sister was strong, and her friends weren’t bad either, that had been the intellectual understanding he had brought to Nantong. Seeing the gory ordeal come to life, however, was opening his eyes to a reality he could scarcely comprehend.
How could they even tell what the hell was going on? Percy’s mind revolted. There was so much chaos, a concourse of light, colour and sound concomitantly occurring amidst spurting blood, snapping bones, howling Familiars and screeching monsters.
“SWEEP! Iron Strike!”
"LULU! CAREFUL- CAO!"
His amulet glowed red-hot, subsuming the escaping essence of dying creatures all around him.
A few times he tried to help, but before his incantation even finished, a sword would lop off a limb, or a blast of lighting would erupt, leaving nothing but smouldering flesh. Whenever a creature got too close, a barrier of water would send it reeling backwards, or Kusu would protect him with a wall of steel implements. More often than not, stragglers were dragged off by Gwen's dogs.
Caliban tackled Percy's target.
Now in a feeding frenzy, Caliban was fully fluffed, more terrifying than Percy had ever seen the jovial worm. Ignoring all wounds and feeling no pain, it crashed bodily into the largest of the Water Ghosts. The simian beast kicked and scratched at the Familiar's body while Caliban hung on face-first, a comical addition to the monster's anatomy.
OH, GODS! Percy felt sick to his core even as his amulet recharged.
The Monkey's simian head slipped into Caliban’s maw, then inch by chomping inch, Caliban took the damned thing into its gullet. Even when half of the Monkey’s torso could no longer be seen, it thrashed and kicked, sending out vivid sprays of purple-black ichor that polluted the yellow-green undergrowth.
“Percy!” Gwen’s cheery voice called for him. "You alright?"
Percy glanced up to see his sister, her face flushed with the passion of the hunt, her cheeks rosy with thrilling violence.
“Gwen! Bring em!” Richard commanded Percy's shepherd sister.
The combat was dying down, the earlier chaos reduced to the sound of whimpering resistance.
Gwen’s Deerhounds approached, six of her dogs dragging two simian victims between them.
Percy stared in horror as the hounds deposited its quarry.
One of the Water Ghosts could barely be recognised as such, now missing most of its furry dermis and half of its face, with one eye hanging loosely by a few precarious vessels.
The smaller one was whole, though it was bleeding out via a missing chunk of its throat.
The rest of the party convened upon the bloody spectacle.
“Percy, go for it,” Richard directed him toward the twitching aberrations. “Your first Monster Kill, buddy, tier 3, maybe tier 4, not bad! I had to start with bloody Yabbies, you know!”
Gwen appeared behind Richard, looking apprehensive.
Percy could hardly breathe. He looked down at the creature below him. A pair of mangled jaws, even a meter away, reflexively snapped at him.
The incantation came naturally to his lips.
Percy watched as a razor-sharp shard of Salt sliced into the creature’s skull.
His sister winced. Percy wondered what drove Gwen to want her little brother to deliver the coup de grâce.
The second strike proved likewise unerring, taking the creature with a single hit.
“WELL DONE!” Richard slapped Percy on the back. “Nice control you’ve got there, Percy. Next time, your targets will be moving!”
Percy looked up to see his sister smiling at him with bloodshot eyes. The amulet burned as the creatures' essence entered the Kirin Stone's Soul Well, after which the jade cooled.
“Holy shit.” Percy cracked a forceful smile, his mind a deluge of emotions after bearing witness to such competence. “Sis, you guys are insane.”
A look of benevolence broke across Gwen’s tautly strung face.
“You know it!” She hugged him. “You did so much better than me when I was put in the position. I couldn't even look at my targets, even knowing that I had every right and that they deserved nothing better.”
Percy awkwardly returned the embrace.
“ALRIGHT!” Richard spared no time for sentimentality. “Petra! Lulan, IT'S TIME!”
“Resist Disease!” Petra dropped an essential protection spell on Lulan. At the tier in which Petra had acquired the stowed spell, it would remain active for days.
Lulan kicked over a Monkey corpse.
Two Iron Blades fell like meat-cleavers, taking the body apart, splattering her from thigh to elbow.
She reached down and ripped open the ribcage, searching for the promised prize. Not far, Gwen was coaxing Caliban to return any Cores the creatures may have stowed by stroking its mid-section.
“MAO!” Lulan triumphantly emerged, scarlet from her elbow to the tip of her fingers, her white face crimson with viscera. “I found one!”
“You’re kidding me!” Kusu’s eyes moved between the object in Lulan’s hand and the astonished, pale-faced Percy, trying to fathom some form of probable cause. “A Core?! REALLY?!”
“I got one here too.” Gwen pushed on Caliban’s torso, coaxing a slimy orb from its lamprey lips. The Core landed with a plop.
“Four more bodies!” Lulan skipped happily to the next body and once again began her merry butchery.
A wayward spleen ruptured, filling the air with a foul odour.
Behind Lulan, Percy reached his limits.
His sister, their cousins, and her friends were insane.
Turning away from the 'Nantong Ripper', Percy cleared the contents of his breakfast.
Richard nodded with satisfaction; his work was done.
“Good sport.” He gave Percy a thumbs up. “Kusu, you owe me 50 HDMs.”
“CAO!” Kusu cursed. “You would think Gwen's brother was made of sterner stuff!”
Four Cores later, Kusu was aghast.
“I am not going to ask why, I only hope you come with us every time,” the crystal starved ex-Clanner professed, handing Percy a towel.
“Thanks.” Percy wiped his lips.
Gwen’s dogs fanned out again, directed by Ariel.
“Prestidigitation!” Gwen ran the quasi-magical laundry Device over Lulan’s dress. The girl’s tolerance for ultra-violence was mind-numbing. Even Gwen, who had personally seen a Mage eaten from inside-out by an eldritch horror, was sickened by her gory labour.
Earlier, Gwen had to take a quick break to ‘digest’ her newly acquired vitality.
Having her friends, not to mention Percy, seeing her groaning with ecstasy was beyond awkward, so she had forced herself to remain grim and unmoving while her innards contorted.
After a minute of stoicism, Gwen could once again breathe. The Monkeys were robust, but their vitality was tier 3 at best, maybe scraping into tier 4 on the Nephres scale. It was their ambushing, pack-hunting tactics that made them so dangerous.
On another note, Gwen was gaining a renewed appreciation of just how potent draconic-essence could be. Compared to the earth-shattering, eyes-rolling-to-the-back-of-her-head ecstasy in Huangshan, her mortal meal of Monkeys was chugging stale-beer compared to slugging Mao-tai.
Lulan emerged from her butchery smiling from ear to ear.
8 Water Ghosts. 16 CCs so far.
Fortuitously, Gwen packed enough LDMs to dry-clean Lulan's entire wardrobe and then some.
“EE! EE!” Ariel reported back.
“All good.” Gwen passed on the buck. “Nothing of note within half-a-kilometre.”
“Marching Order!” Richard barked. The Water Mage was a born drill sergeant. He inspected his troops before giving the command to keep moving.
“Gwen, get the dogs! Alright, to the Lair!”