Having gotten a taste of the Water Ghosts' peculiarities, the party proceeded with care as they made for the lair.
There were no more ambushes, indicating that the creatures had retreated for the advantage of their subterranean abodes.
“Any chance we can just excavate the damned lair?” Gwen noted the intimidating size of the den as they approached. Judging by the outside, a medium-sized shopping complex would fit under the thing.
“You're going to need a Magister-tier Earthen Mage for that.” Richard commanded Lea to displace the water as they proceeded, allowing the party to avoid any unpleasant surprises. “That or earth-moving golems. Good luck transporting them though. It’s cheaper to pay five ambitious Uni students, hahaha!”
"There sure are A LOT of beasties here," Gwen noted, watching Caliban slither about, eating every other thing it found. There were colourful frogs, viscous looking water bugs, and other devious looking fauna all over the place. Ariel reported that Gwen’s hounds were constant victims of harassment by the local fauna, though it wasn’t anything their draconic-constitution couldn’t handle. The falling level of water had brought all kinds of critters out from the murk.
“Is the lair underwater?”
“Nope, Water Ghosts are air-breathing.” Richard sent out a blast of water, removing a clump of stubborn turf, revealing a host of red-spotted white worms slithering this way and that.
“WHAT THE FUCK!” Percy circulated a layer of Salt over his body.
“Scarlet-tailed leeches.” Kusu leaned in closer for a better look. “Better not have an open wound - they're drawn to blood…”
Percy paled, shivering uncontrollably.
MY BOY, afraid of bugs? Gwen mused. It was true though. Percy was a city boy through and through. She at least had the experience of camping out in the outback, and an extra decade or two’s experience-
Sensing the font of vitality that was Gwen's delicious, essence-filled body, dozens of leeches made a leap of faith for her exposed skin.
“FU- LIGHTNING BOLT!”
A line of lightning cut through the peat-marsh, displacing a linear row of water before spreading forth as a jagged fissure of scorched earth.
“Jesus-strewth!” Gwen caught her breath. It was strange how Caliban could be a cute little horror from the Void, but these slimy white wormlings set her teeth on edge.
The others chuckled.
They continued, with Gwen blasting off bolts every hundred meters or so.
“I am frankly surprised your spells aren't attracting more Ghosts.” Richard looked up at Ariel and Lea floating up above. “GOT ANYTHING?”
“Nothing,” Lea reported back.
By the time the party arrived at ‘base camp’, by which Richard had meant the entrance to the lair, they were losing sunlight.
“How're we feeling?” Richard turned to his party. “Got enough stamina to start on the lair?”
“I am fine.” Gwen raised her hand. “Percy?”
“I am alright.” Percy had worked up a good sweat. All of them had in the humid weather. The chill radiating from the soggy marsh permeated their bodies. Combined with the hostile flora and fauna, it was self-evident that without significant terra-forming, the sodden landscape could not sustain human habitation. Of the group, it was only Gwen who appeared barely touched by fatigue.
But looking at his party, Richard knew better.
"Let's take a breather anyway," he advised. "We'll break for afternoon tea, refresh our heads, then head in."
He gazed upward.
“Ariel, Lea, set up a perimeter please.”
“EE!” Ariel swished its tail.
Lea nodded, then drifted away to survey the perimeter.
The hounds fanned out.
Gwen stared at the cavern’s entrance. Had she not known it was there, she would have thought it a moss-strewn split in the risen landscape.
Beside her, Richard materialised a portable stove. “So, what flavour of rations do you guys want?”
The party had barely eaten when Ariel and Lea reported that they had Water Ghosts coming out of the cavern.
“They're attracted to SPAM?” Gwen protectively held the block of spiced mystery-meat close to her chest.
They had enjoyed the peace until Gwen, displeased with rations of nutritious mana-infused military ration, added a few blocks of SPAM to her bubbling pot. Soon after, the salt-soaked meat sent up a delicious scent. It was then that Lea reported on the disturbance around their camp.
The party's response was skeptical, none more so than Richard, who’d thought he had done his due diligence on the Water Ghosts.
“Gwen, give me your SPAM. I need at least twice as much as you've got going there." Richard wasn’t one to let go of an opportunity; straightaway, he ordered the party to collect their things.
“A-all of them?!” Gwen protested feebly.
Richard mercilessly tore the SPAM from Gwen's hands, then dunked the formless flesh into the bubbling pot.
The party was by now over a hundred meters away, watching two dozen blocks of simmering fat swimming in Richard's wok.
Lea manipulated the water vapours, stirring the salty soup so that the bubbling scent wafted into the cavern's mouth, likewise permeating the waters below.
They left Ariel floating above, just out of sight, confident that the remarkable scent of processed meat would overwhelm the Monkeys' desire to look up.
“Gwen, get ready.”
Still mourning her ration of SPAM, Gwen channelled a sliver of Almudj’s Essence into Ariel, transforming her Familiar into its Quasi-Draconic form. Ariel seemed to possess a far better command of the essence than she did, capable of both withholding and radiating the aura's palpable effects.
Gwen then preloaded an Elemental Sphere.
The party waited.
It didn’t take long for the water around the campsite to roil and churn, bursting apart violently to reveal a dozen Demi-humanoids both large and small. With her eagle-eyed vision, Gwen baulked when she spotted a specimen with drooping, dried up breasts beneath its mattered fur. There was another, a youngling, suckling on the teat of a younger female. From their gait and their body language, they appeared famished. It was no wonder the creatures were drawn to SPAM.
Gwen’s mind blanked out, suddenly accosted by an unpleasant and dubious acknowledgement.
A hand landed on her shoulder.
"Let's do this!" Richard grinned. "Good thing you brought the SPAM! Kusu, take a left, wall them in. Lulu, you're on the right, don't let a single CC escape! Percy, Petra, you’re with me! Gwen, engage as soon as we're in place!”
Gwen's companions charged ahead.
Her mind numb with unbidden solicitudes, Gwen commanded Ariel to prioritise coverage over damage.
Two globes left Ariel’s stag-horns, guided by its tentacle whiskers. In a split-second, the blinding orbs grew in size, taking on the guise of a twin star-fall, hellbent on obliterating the SPAM stealing culprits.
The spheres struck, growing in radius until they encompassed the entirety of the campsite.
“YIP YIP Yi-”
Twin novas of viridescent lighting rang out, blighting the landscape, splitting the peat, rending flesh, blasting bone, peeling skin and fur.
The shrieks of the Monkeys suddenly grew silent.
Gwen’s second Familiar joined the fray. Though she could taste her dilemma like oxidised iron on the tip of her tongue, she knew better than to let the Monkey's lives go to waste.
Her serpent joined the fray, frenzied in its feasting of their fried and battered foe.
Percy quelled his share of singed, gurgling simians, feeling his amulet thrum as it drank the low-tier essence.
Lulan directly dispatched her share of babbling beasts with broad sweeping strokes to the head and neck.
Kusu likewise swept through the rear, his daggers unerringly finding their marks, penetrating softened flesh flayed by Gwen’s lightning.
Richard walked up beside Gwen as she ruminated upon the operatic scene styled after the Seventh Circle of Dante's hellish Inferno.
“What's WRONG? There were females and younglings amongst those Water Ghosts!” Gwen spluttered. There was no need to be coy with Richard. “They're sapient beings! Don't deny it! You said they were sapient back in Shanghai!”
Richard took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly.
“They’re sapient.” Her cousin smirked, his tone entirely objective. “I duly confess that these creatures feel, have complex social units, and are even known to perform the occasional act of altruism. Why - what’s the matter?”
“W-what's wrong?" Gwen shuddered. "Richard, must we exterminate them?"
"Well, its only expected," Richard scoffed. “They’re dangerous animals.”
Gwen swallowed twice in quick succession. Richard wasn’t wrong, but she was reluctant to concede the point.
“Think about it.” Richard pointed to an enormous female carcass Lulan was crudely vivisecting like a lioness ferreting for offal. “How can creatures whose primary preoccupation is to feed, reproduce, and expand: co-exist with us, whose primary preoccupation is to feed our kin, spread our territory, and ensure our continued dominion? Don't you think peaceful co-existence is contradictory to either of our reasons for being?”
“But…” Gwen sighed. She had no persuasive answers, not when her old world gleefully engaged in genocide over trivialities like minor differences in religious texts. From the Mongolians incursions to the British Empire, from the Holocaust to the war in Yemen, human history had rarely if ever conspired for mercy. If there was a single immutable truth that defined humanity, it was that scene from Full Metal Jacket, the one where a Colonel grilled Private Joker:
"You write 'Born to Kill' on your helmet, and you wear a Peace Button? What’s that supposed to be, some kind of sick joke?"
The scene had stayed with her all these years. The duality of man: the Jungian thing. Was it that simple though?
“It's that simple, Gwen.” Richard appeared to have read her mind. “Don’t worry your pretty, tier 6 Lightning head about it.”
Gwen snorted bitterly. Don’t think?! Easier said than done!
“You overthink.” As if to make his point, Richard petted Gwen's head.
Gwen annoyedly brushed off her cousin's intrusive hand.
“You know, I wonder,” her cousin noted sardonically. “What do you suppose happens when we’re on the losing side? Mercy, perhaps?”
“…” Gwen couldn't counter that hypothesis either.
“SIX CORES!” Lulan was in desperate need of another Prestidigitation, though the girl was clearly too ecstatic to care. “GOOD WORK PERCY!”
Kusu turned to Gwen.
“Percy's our lucky charm, huh?”
“Yep, you got it.” Gwen cracked a wane smile, shaking herself from her induced stupor. “My boy brings all the Cores to the yard.”
At nightfall, the team camped atop the swollen lair, with Petra setting up Wards and Gwen arranging her dogs for guard duty. She had to retrieve Ariel as they entered the Portable Habitat, meaning the alpha Deerhound was now in charge of the pack.
According to Chen, her inexpert conjuration should last a good twenty-four hours, meaning there was at least another twenty odd hours left: more than enough for the team to get a good night’s sleep.
The gang settled into the habitat, with the girls sharing the master bedroom; Richard having a guest room to himself; Percy having the other, and Kusu offering to sleep on the couch.
As the boys prepared dinner, Gwen meditated for a short while, inspecting her gains for the day.
Though individually robust, the Water Ghosts were 'essentially' Demi-human simians with an affinity for Water, measuring unimpressively on the Nephres scale. After snacking on six or so of the buggers, Gwen's Vitality had reached a satisfying state of satiation, albeit nothing like the brimming, supernatural haleness she had gained from the Draconic-creatures. For a moment during their last fight, she had considered the dangerous idea of having Percy use his Drain Life, but ultimately the number one and two rules of the Persecrecy Club reigned.
“Time to eat!” Richard called out after half an hour.
Gwen found herself at the head of the table.
“Our MVP.” Richard chuckled, raising a glass. “To Gwen!”
“Good work, Gwen!”
“Thanks, everyone.” Gwen toasted back, well within her element. "You guys are the reason everything is going so well. Here's to you!"
"Cheers!" the group toasted again.
“Sis, your artillery spells are amazing.” Percy sighed dreamily. “Lightning is the best.”
“Hey, your Salt is only going to get better. You haven’t seen Dad kick ass in Singapore. He was very impressive, more powerful than me, certainly.”
“That sounds promising, especially coming from you.” Percy raised his glass.
"Ha!" Gwen snorted. "Did your elite high school teach you to be a flatterer?"
Richard soon passed the giant pot of curry. Gwen spooned out enough to fill her bowl, an impressive salad bow, half-filled with rice. Even though she was feeling happily vital, her boosted metabolism had woes of its own.
The group made chit-chatter about the events of the day, discussing how they would proceed tomorrow. Richard expressed that he had mapped out the first level or so of the lair, and that they would be advancing straight to the second. All in all, he suspected six layers of criss-crossing tunnels and caverns.
“It’ll be Lea and Caliban’s turn to shine,” Richard ruminated aloud. “Lulan too. I don’t think Ariel’s earth-shattering AOE is going to do us any favours in a tunnel system. It'll be two abreast at best.”
“I’ll have Ariel bring up top,” Gwen agreed. "Let's hope the ceiling's not too low."
“EE!!” Ariel too was eating from a bowl, though the curry was proving excessively pungent for its sensitive nose. It kept sneezing, which was adorable indeed.
“Here.” Lulan materialised something in her hand and threw it at Ariel. The offending object was a length of knotted meat in the shape of a generous shank.
“You bought meat?” Gwen was surprised because Lulan had explicitly stated she had brought no supplies.
“It’s from those Monkeys.” Lulan wiped her hands, returning to her bowl as Ariel tore into the flesh.
“Ah.” Gwen took a few more spoonfuls of curry.
Watching Ariel chow down, a nascent paranoia began to build in her chest.
“Richard.” Gwen stirred her curry softly. “What meat is this?”
“Bushmeat,” her cousin replied.
“Oh, thank God.” Gwen breathed out. “Ha! For a moment there, I was sure you were going to say M…”
She noticed her party was staring at her strangely.
Petra pulled herself from her seat.
“I’ll get the napkins.” The Russian reached for the paper towels.
Gwen looked down at her curry-gumbo.
In her haste, she had eaten half a salad bowl.
She should have known. Only curry could overpower the gamy taste.
A vision of a Water Ghost's babe clinging onto a pair of hairy old teats flashed across her mind.
Gwen reappeared inside the kitchen, projectile vomiting into the sink.
“You see that?” Richard remarked to Percy. “See that control? Now that’s fuck’n impressive!”
The next morning, Gwen gleefully ate three servings of SPAM.
Glorious ignorance! Such ambiguous taste! Not even the ingredient label divulged its secrets. The processed meat put Gwen's mind at ease. Lulan and Petra had spent the night convincing her eating Bushmeat wasn't cannibalism.
Gwen switched to her skinsuit, ensuring she wouldn't blind Percy and scar him for life if she had to Void Skin.
When the party re-emerged, Gwen’s Deerhounds greeted them. The dogs were almost at their limits, so Gwen dismissed them in order to re-engage the spell.
Unfortunately, her lack of sleep had taken a toll on her concentration, and she only succeeded on her third try.
“Sorry," Gwen apologised. Her recovery time meant the whole party had to wait for her.
“It’s fine.” Richard tapped his temple. “But from here on out, FOCUS. Our lives are in your hands.”
“I know,” Gwen promised.
“Petra, if you would, please.”
Petra buffed the party. She had enough for two forays, more than enough.
“Alright folks, here’s how we proceed…”
With Gwen’s dogs now in play, Richard decided to change up their initial strategy. The Deerhounds would lead scouting incursions into the splits and partitions that made up the lair, telepathically reporting back to Ariel if they found anything interesting. Meanwhile, the party would proceed forward as one down the main artery as far as they could before Lulan had to Stone Shape and Earthquake to create new paths. The idea was to pick up as many Water Ghosts as the party could manage in a round trip.
The interior of the cavern grew spacious once Lulan Stone Shaped the entrance, widening the granite so that the party could pass easily. Gwen’s dogs disappeared into the dark, the soft pattering of their paws splattering like pelting rain as they streamed through the cavern.
As expected, the Water Ghosts were exceptional ambush predators. Utilising their innate water-Blink abilities, they erupted from the sodden walls and mossy undergrowth to attack the party. Concurrently, the tunnels were filled with traps: envenomed barbs, diseased spikes, saplings tipped with malignant growth, as well as toxic fauna that laired in small crags.
Every so often, Ariel reported that the dogs were bringing back a host of their simian quarry, too incensed by the hounds' presence to remain in hiding. The party would lay an ambush by having Gwen warding the entrance with Lightning Tentacles, or when there was enough time, Petra would set immobilisation Warding Glyphs, and Gwen, her Faithful Hound.
Their progress remained fruitful for the better half of a day, harvesting dozens of Monkeys each encounter, which Gwen disturbingly acknowledged as 'family' units within the tribe. There were a few precarious calls as well, such as when a section of the cavern suddenly collapsed, sending Gwen and Lulan tumbling. Thankfully, Gwen had on her Boots of Flying, not to mention both of the girls had their Blink or Dimension Door equivalents should the need arise. Another time, the Water Ghosts attempted to flush the party into an ambush by sacrificing one of their own as a lure. Taking Richard’s advice, Gwen sent a Barbanginy Elemental Sphere into the adjacent chamber, collapsing the entire thing altogether.
Lulan collected body parts via her Stone Shape.
“Lulu, open a passage downward from here, let’s see if we can go deeper, we're getting close to the centre.”
The party advanced steadily. Percy's’ amulet warmed his chest against the cold murk. Beside him, Lulan’s Large Storage Ring bulged with reclaimed heads and harvested Cores.
Their pace persisted until one of Gwen’s dogs returned with a souvenir.
“EEee! EE!” Ariel notified the party.
“Shaaa!” Caliban sniffed what the Deerhound had dragged back.
“Oh no…” Lea floated closer to the Mages. “Ariel says the dogs found a person.”
Where the endless slaughter had numbed the party, the unwelcome news now reinvigorated their interest. A person? Gwen knelt to see as her hound padded toward them.
Her Deerhound deposited a limb.
It was a human hand.
“Fuck!” Gwen took a step back, her nerves taut enough to play a sound. The hand looked like it had been gnawed off. Did her dog do it? Were her Draconic-Deerhounds man-eating?
“No, not the dogs,” Lea translated, with Gwen gladly exhaling. “They found someone another layer down.”
The party regarded one another cautiously.
"We need to find out if there are people down there," Gwen urged. "Maybe they're alive? Victims captured by the Water Ghosts?"
"That's unlikely," Petra pointed out. "The Ghosts we saw were starving."
"Waste of time." Kusu appeared adverse detouring as well.
“Okay, we vote.” Richard pointed downwards. “Who wants to see if there’s someone alive down there?”
Petra and Kusu’s ‘Nay’ made Gwen recoil.
“A good rule of thumb,” Petra educated her young companion. “Is to never deviate from a planned route in a Dungeon. We need to work through the warrens systematically, not go traipsing after a dead man.”
“I concur.” Kusu shrugged off Lulan’s bulging eyeballs. “Keep to our task. We’ll find this man or woman or not: it’s just a matter of time.”
“I shall abstain.” Richard nodded. “By majority, we find the owner of this hand. Objections?”
“None,” Petra answered without hesitation.
“I am fine with it,” Kusu conceded as well.
Even as the tension in her chest yielded to relief, Gwen couldn’t help but notice the heat in her cheeks. There was a bit of guilt, a dash of pride, and a mixture of less than cordial sentiments lashing out at cruel Kusu and his partner in crime, pragmatic Petra. More worryingly, Gwen knew that had the nays won; her first reaction would be to launch into oratory rather than affirm the consensus. If so, did that make her a terrible team member? If the party could not proceed without her, could she then hold that over them, driving them into danger?
She was overthinking again, Gwen realised. But she couldn’t help herself.
Such a test was sure to arise one day, especially if they were to work with Seniors from Fudan for the IIUC. Could she handle it if they told her to act otherwise in a morally ambiguous circumstance? Was team cohesion more critical than principles?
Lulan’s mastery of the Earthen element was as impressive as ever.
Now descending to a lower system of caverns and warrens, the party continued their foray. Gwen's Deerhound took the lead, followed by Lea, parting the water, dismantling the traps and blasting lines of lightning down dark holes. Caliban brought up the rear with Kusu, shielding Petra and Percy from harm. Finally, Ariel floated above their heads.
Along the way, three other dogs joined the march. By now, the other hounds had strayed too far from the party and so were ordered to stay put.
After a few more stray Monkeys and a dozen bobby traps, the party came to a small cavern with clear signs of industry. To their surprise, Gwen recognised the evidence of crude furniture, stone tools and other stolen bits of flotsam and jetsam collected from the Water Ghost’s victims.
“Grrr…” Her Deerhound growled.
The rearmost hounds pushed past the party and took up their positions at the fore, joined by Ariel and Lea.
“Lea! Vapor Form.”
Lea dispersed herself to effect a pseudo-invisibility, while Ariel took its cue from Gwen’s Illusion incantation.
The two familiars entered the dark cavern while the party readied offensive and defensive spells.
“There’s a pile of equipment in there, clothing and such,” Richard reported, possessing the sole Familiar capable of both empathic link and human speech. “Looks like a larder to me. A rather fruitless larder.”
The party held its breath.
“… it’s not looking good.” Richard breathed out after a while. “Lea says she's found the owner of our wayward hand. He’s dead.”
A solemn air descended over the group.
“There’s… a few victims in there. Emergency supplies, I guess.” Richard turned toward the party. “I think it is best not to go in. Nobody wants to see this stuff.”
How rare for Richard to be so sensitive, Gwen pondered: the same Richard who delighted in opening her eyes to every horror from faux-cannibalism to mass murder. If so, what the fuck could be in there?
“I want to see,” Gwen insisted. “Richard, I think I need to see this.”
Richard stepped aside.
Their eyes met.
“You knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?” Gwen chided her cousin, her accusation cattier than she’d anticipated.
In a work environ, the advantage of knowing someone too well could be a complication in itself, especially when it came to situations like this. Gwen had suspected that Richard DID give a shit about her giving a shit about the simian women and children and that he was trying to deliver yet another one of his ‘corrective’ therapies.
“Just prepping you for the big one," Richard affirmed her suspicion. "I am serious though, its a fucked up display. The choice is yours, but no one can be ready for shit like this. With your sensitivity, I don't know..."
Because YOU know better? Gwen suppressed the irritation engendering in her chest. How presumptuous of Richard to think-
Gwen’s thoughts seized at once.
They had entered a large, airy cavern.
As anticipated, it was a pantry of sorts.
But the place looked to Gwen more akin to a torture chamber.
Or perhaps, an abattoir.
Crude hooks had been fashioned out of rusted farming implements. Upon the hooks, hanging like a slab of beef at a butcher’s window, was the owner of the hand. The corpses were expertly dressed: an arm here, a leg there. The torso was butterflied, the body split with a sharp implement.
A thick layer of salt covered the dark flesh, like jamón serrano.
In the darkness, all Gwen and her companions could hear was the sound of their breathing.
Her dogs’ growling grew in intensity until their throaty warning filled the cavern.
“We got company.” Richard readied his multiple Shields. “Petra, Wall up. They were probably waiting for us. If so, this is the big one, likely the ruler of the cavern. Lea, clear all the water in a twenty-meter radius.”
A semi-dome of crystal blossomed into place, its exterior lined with jagged, glassy teeth, enveloping Petra and Percy.
“Caliban!” Gwen commanded her Familiar. Caliban oozed a coat of void-slime, then sunk into the wall, coiling its body.
Gwen's Deerhounds were now in a frenzy.
Twenty-odd meters away, a small tidal wave of water leapt from cavern floor without warning, rushing toward the party with enough force to dash apart their formation.
The wall of brackish white-water parted as if commanded by the Prophet Moses, passing the party, leaving them unmolested.
Immediately following the chaotic deluge's passing, figures formed in the darkness. A dozen, no, two dozen Water Ghosts surrounded them both back and front, having Blinked into existence in the wake of the deluge.
“It's their Water Priest,” Richard spat. “Finally, we’re getting somewhere! This is the big one!”
“Petra!” Lulan called out.
Petra was way ahead of Lulan.
The golden glow of the Enchantment School suffused the party, dissolving all fatigue, strengthening their bodies and dispelling all fear. Precariously, the application of Heroism was a double-edged blade, for the Mages would remain fearless until the spell’s resolution.
“Wait-“ Richard halted Gwen before she could give the command for Caliban to Stag-form. “Save Cali for the Priest. Creatures possessing magical abilities are far more likely to produce Cores with a Spirit.”
“But what if-“
“Don’t worry. Lea is here.” Richard smirked with confidence. “As am I. We need to show these animals the price of hunting humankind.”
At the thought of the preserved corpses, concentric rings of electricity circulated brightly in Gwen’s pupils until her eyes were shimmering in the dim darkness. With great pain, the Lightning sorceress forced herself to look away from the slabs of human flesh.
"Suffer not our enemies to live!" Lulan spat vehemently; the girl had been doubly affected by the horrid sight, so much that she was sprouting CCP propaganda slogans.
“Yes.” Gwen's voice took on a cold, unyielding edge. “Not a single one."