The party assembled outside, restored and refreshed.
Gwen packed the Portable Habitat before listening to Richard's proposal.
“I took the Quest,” Richard explained to his companions. “Meaning until we’re back or reported missing, no one else can take the Quest for at least two weeks.”
“Quest poachers?” Petra hypothesised.
“Likely.” Richard wore a carefree expression, though the coldness in his voice may as well be the fathomless depth of the Elemental Plane of Water. “You know, I am curious as to who dares infringe upon our CCs and our HDMs.”
“What’s the jurisdiction if they’re poachers?” Gwen asked.
“We poach ‘em, broil ‘em and grill ‘em.” Lulan was all teeth. “At least that’s what my Clan used to do to Rogue Mages.”
"I prefer robbing 'em blind." Richard gave Lulan a thumb of approval.
“She means we have to confront them, confirm their intentions, then choose to escalate or retreat," Petra butted in. "If we fight them off, the Tower’s rulings are likely going to be on our side. If we retreat, we can lodge a formal complaint, and the Tower will deal with them as well.”
“What if they don’t care? Or they agree and then carry on?” Percy asked. From what he had seen from school and high-society, he could hardly imagine a confrontation like this ending with a handshake and a heartfelt apology.
“Ha!” Lulan was evidently an expert on the matter. “That’s where I come in.”
“If they’re Rogue Mages, the Clan will use them to test our Acolytes, if they know what’s good for them, they’ll play along and come out with a broken arm or leg,” Kusu explained sheepishly. “In the case where the intruders are from another Sect or Clan, we take them prisoner and exchange them for crystals.”
“That sounds reasonable.” Gwen motioned with a hand for their attention. "Everyone, please let me deal with this. Richard, do you mind if I take this one?"
"Go ahead." Richard stepped back. "If you do decide to engage though, don't hold back."
“I won't - oh, the hounds are coming back,” Gwen passed on the message from Ariel. “I’d dare say we’ll be seeing our poachers soon.”
The pitter-patter of pawed feet soon filled the cavern as her dogs slinked back into view.
Not wanting to be mistaken for a hidden ambush, the party assumed a defensive position, with Gwen’s hounds fanning out, forming a semi-circle.
First came the sound of human footsteps, then the shadowy contour of a large man in his forties appeared, stepping into view from the smooth granite carved out by millennia of subterranean water.
“Greetings.” Gwen raised a hand. “We’ll wait for the rest of your party.”
The man performed a double-take as soon as his eye adjusted to the dancing lights illuminating cavern’s interior.
“Cao!” the man spat.
Behind him, three more men and a woman soon appeared. The woman was younger by far, while the men were all middle-aged.
“Get out of the way,” the woman snapped, ordering her companions into the cavern without care.
Gwen ran her eyes over the group. Her Detect Magic identifying the first man as an Earthen Abjurer, the second and third as a Fire and an Ice Evoker. The woman appeared to be an Enchanter of sorts, while the final man had an indistinct aura, akin to Lulan or Kusu, marking him as a bloodline Mage from a Clan.
“Miss." The Abjurer swallowed nervously. “I guess we found that other party.”
“You mean they found us,” the woman retorted cattily. “Uncle Wang, can you go and parley?”
Gwen and her party watched as the Clanner Mage peeled from the group.
“Hail.” Gwen stepped forward.
“Noted,” the Clanner replied imperiously. “Who are you?”
“We’re Fudan students assigned to the Quest in this Dungeon,” Gwen's expression possessed such friendliness that her companions' scalps crawled. They noted that Lea and Caliban were nowhere to be seen, which could only mean the two Familiars were watching the proceeding from somewhere advantageous. “Which begs the question, who are YOU and why are you here?”
"Rowf! Rowf! Rowf!"
Gwen’s annoyance with the arrogant Mage directly translated into raw hostility from her dogs. She became aware that her lack of mastery also translated into unfiltered empathic links between Conjurer and Conjuration.
The young woman caught sight of her hounds.
“Hey!” she announced from the back. “Are those yours? One of them attacked us!”
Gwen’s anger instantly leapt to an eleven.
Attacked her party?
What a stupid, blatant lie!
Her dogs wouldn’t harm a soul unless provoked, and even when it had been attacked, her hound had attempted to return to her before it succumbed. Ariel wouldn't lie!
“EEEE!!” Ariel’s whinnying echoed across the chamber.
The hounds silenced at once.
Striding on invisible footfalls, Ariel cat-walked from near the ceiling until it was standing directly above Gwen’s party. It's mane majestic and rippling as it swished its tail, drawing the viewer’s eyes toward its twin stag horns.
The woman’s eyes bulged with astonishment, then burned with desire as she searched Gwen’s party for the Spirit's Master, stopping when it reached Gwen, whose pupils glowed with Divination.
“That Kirin is wasted on someone like you,” the woman scoffed. “Where did you find it?”
A fit of palpable affront circulated through Gwen in the form of sizzling displeasure discharging as Lightning. A part of her snickered with the knowledge that a Spirit could only be passed on between two intimately aligned parties, and almost never via force or coercion. The prideful part of her mind fumed over the woman’s callous remark.
“Richard, NOTE that the offending party has refused my Parley. I shall now exercise our right to defend our claim to this lair and the Quest assigned to it. As a last reprieve, you have five seconds to present yourselves.” Gwen cut in abruptly. “ONE.”
“How DARE YOU!” the peevish woman snapped. “Do you know where you are right now? Do you know who we are?”
“WANG! Silence this insolent whelp!”
“WAIT! We’re from the Nantong Fungs,” the Clanner interjected. “This is milady Yuhua Fung, third to the Household of Fung. We are her retainers.”
Yuhua glared at her Clan Elder, furious that the old man had lost her 'face'.
“That doesn’t mean much to us.” Richard smirked. “Prepare your Storage Rings. We're not holding back.”
“YOU LITTL-” The woman was foolish enough to step forward.
Ariel neighed, letting loose a whinny half-roar, half-shriek, joined by the howling of her dogs. A burst of Dragon-fear radiated from Ariel’s pseudo-Kirin figure, mimicking the Monkey's tactics, she filled the cavern with endless howling, smothering all speech.
Even knowing Gwen's intent, Richard and company felt a shiver up their spine as cold perspiration permeated their back. Opposite, their intruders looked as though they'd witnessed a Death Knight cavalry charge.
Caught by surprise, the two Evokers threw up, the Abjurer took on a deathly pallor, and their mistress’ contingency item triggered, forming a halo of amber Enchantment atop her head. Only the Clanner, Wang, bore the Dragon fear with dignity.
“HOLD!” Wang intervened, he placed himself between Gwen and his party. “Mistress, you promised to leave things to me!”
“Hmmph!” Yuhua turned away, her knees shaking as she fought to retain control of her body. “A-As you say, Uncle Wang.”
Wang turned to Gwen’s party.
“We’re searching for a missing adventuring party. My mistress's cousin is among them,” Wang explained. “Please, we mean you no harm.”
“For how long were they missing?”
“About three days,” the Elder recapped. “Three young men, a young woman, and a Senior Mage in his late thirties.”
“Ariel!” Gwen retrieved her Almuldj’s Essence.
Ariel floated over Gwen's head and laid its snout over her shoulders, its tentacle whiskers playing with her hair.
"If that's the case, we have no conflict of interest," Gwen stated diplomatically, telling her dogs to tarry a safe distance away. "Richard, do you have the bodies we found?"
Richard summoned Lulan.
Lulan materialised the carcasses the party had found the night before.
The young woman from the Clan of Fung ogled the suddenly obscene sight, transfixed by the surreality that these could be people she had spoken to only days before, now made into salted encrusted rations.
Elder Wang lifted one of the eyeless heads by the hair, bringing it up for examination.
“It’s Jiao.” The old man sighed. “I dare say we have Weng and Qilu accounted for as well, which leaves us with Master Xie and Miss Lihong.”
"There's a chance they're still alive-" Gwen continued optimistically.
“Is there a reward for finding your Senior Mage?” Richard interrupted shamelessly, cutting Gwen off before she could offer their service for 'goodwill'. “Water Ghosts don’t kill themselves, you know. Frankly, I am surprised Miss Fung even made it this far. Were you going to do all the leg work, old man?”
“Richard!” Gwen snapped. She suspected Richard was trying to goad the Fungs. “I am sorry, Miss Fung, Master Wang. You may retrieve the remains of your clansmen as you see fit.”
Wang nodded solemnly, storing what remained of their Clan members.
Gwen shot Richard a warning.
Richard scratched his noise, looking elsewhere.
“We will continue with our Quest,” Gwen informed the Nantong party. “How do you wish to proceed?”
“May we join you?” Wang carefully enquired.
"That's right! You can work for us!" Yuhua implored them. "We'll hire you."
“I am afraid that is not possible.” Gwen shook her head as well. “There are precise tactics and methods we employ which would endanger you and Miss Fung. It would be to your detriment, I assure you.”
"I see," Wang acknowledged. "That's a shame."
“Uncle - we need to find Lihong!” Yuhua interjected. She turned to Gwen's party. “What do you people want? HDMS? CCs-”
“Gwen?” Richard tapped Gwen's skin-suit. "Come on. Currency is without sin..."
Yuhua and Magus Wang both looked over at Gwen’s Kirin and her host of draconic-hounds, trying to figure out why a Mage of such unfathomable talent and possessing such a rare Familiar was in a party starved for CCs and HDMs.
“I’ll offer your party a Search and Rescue Quest for 400 HDMs and 50 CCs right now,” Yuhua declared. She then spat in her hand. "Well, shake on it?"
Embarrassed, Wang urged his young miss to clean her hand. The girl had read too many novels. No one wanted to shake a spit-laden palm.
“I am happy to look for your missing Clan members- BUT - my one condition is that until we return, you are to remain here. Is that agreeable?”
“EEE!” Ariel gave another warning.
The sound of her hounds’ panting filled the cavern.
“Understood.” The Magus quickly made the call for his mistress. “We will wait here for the good news.”
“Deal.” Gwen shot Richard a sympathetic look before shaking the girl's gobbed hand. She mentally praised Ariel for playing its part so well. Here was the first time she had truly tried out her militant pacifism, and the result proved more than promising. “I will have every hound searching every nook and cranny. Rest assured Miss Fung, Master Wang; we will find your companions.”
Gwen turned to her party.
“Alright, everyone, let’s move out.”
"WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?" The Fung girl screeched.
Gwen paused by the cavern's edge to reiterate the deal they had just made.
"THAT... is the last thing you would have seen if you had fought us."
“Who is that Sha-bi?!” Yuhua accosted her tutor and guardian with indignity, still shaking from her traumatic encounter with Caliban. “Doesn’t she know who we are? We own this place.”
Her party had set up in the cavern after Gwen’s had left.
After the Magus moulded from the limestone table and chairs, the group settled down to recuperate from the Dragon-fear. The Abjurer poured Yuhua a hot cup of jasmine tea to settle her nerves, after which the girl couldn’t help but mope loudly to her companion.
“The girl with the Kirin?”
“Yes, the one with the Kirin!” Yuhua seethed. “Lucky wench! And what the HELL was that OTHER THING?”
“I would be wary with your tone.” Magus Wang looked his ward in the eyes with a seriousness she rarely observed in her teacher. “That young lady is not someone you want to be on the wrong side of.”
“Well? Who is she?”
“I believe that’s Gwen Song,” Wang spoke the last two syllables softly.
“Never heard of her.”
“No, but you will.” Wang sipped his cup of tea. “Master Dai knows her- in fact, he was one of the very first to make her acquaintance in Shanghai.”
“Brother?” Yuhua snorted. “Don’t tell me she’s one of his girls?”
“No, nothing of the sort.” Her instructor shook his head. “From what I recall, she’s a dual-elementalist in Lightning and Void. Her uncle is the Ash Bringer, her grandfather the old hound of the Confidential Communications Committee. Only recently, she single-handedly defeated Magus Wonsoo Liu in Hangzhou.”
“Wonsoo... the one from the Northern Front?”
“The very same. We received the report a week ago.”
Yuhua sucked in a breath of the cavern’s cold, stale air.
“And Void, as in…”
Wang nodded solemnly.
“Her Void Familiar may be more powerful than even the Kirin. THAT, I believe, was the strange worm creature that tried to... nudge you.”
Strangely, Yuhua's jealousy dissipated. What remained was only awe and a sense of grudging respect. Envy was a funny thing. When someone possessed something that one thought one could attain, the mind became filled with desirous energy. When the object of one’s desire became so far as to be unreachable, what one felt instead was a sort of distant reverence and worshipful respect.
“CAO!” Yuhua slapped the table, making the teacups jump. “Wang! Why didn’t you say so! We could have offered her double the HDMs and CCs!”
With the Water Priest dead, the rest of the lair seemed to have lost its malicious atmosphere. What few Water Ghosts they now encountered seemed entirely incidental, engaged either via blind luck as Lulan Stone Shaped into new passages, or flushed out by her hounds.
The party thus arrived at what appeared to be the lowest section of the lair, a large cavern waist-deep in filthy water.
Petra blew the rest of her Resist Disease as the party waded into the filth, taking care as to anticipate any ambushes by the Elementally-Blinking Monkeys.
Gwen sent her cantrips into the darkness, illuminating the cavern.
“It’s a… mural?” She marvelled at the sight of the painted walls.
There was an artful simplicity to the crude paintings, communicating meticulous care taken by the artist. From what Gwen could see, the images depicted a great tribe and its daily life, filled with visions of Water Ghosts gathering swamp-fruits and hunting for fish and crustaceans. There were other images too, female Water Ghosts nursing children, male and female Ghosts procreating, and procreating, and procreating, all in different positions.
Yikes, Gwen had to look away for a moment. More than half of the images were bestial-kama-sutra. The Water Ghosts were true evangelists of going forth and multiplying.
The party progressed until the water receded and the ground beneath them began to rise. They soon found themselves in a natural amphitheatre of sorts.
Gwen’s dogs fanned out.
An enormously hairy humanoid being sat at the centre of the descending steps, at the lowest point, half submerged in water. From a distance, it resembled a tremendous, shaggy carpet draped over a stone throne.
“What is it?” Gwen turned to Richard, who was more knowledgeable in the matters of Wildland fauna.
“It’s their Chief,” Richard replied. “Or King? It depends on how many Ghosts once lived here. The Water Ghosts have a complex hierarchy. I know that.”
“Ariel, check it out,” Gwen commanded her Familiar.
“I can take it from here,” Lulan informed Gwen. "One Sword Toss and it'll be in two bits."
“No, it’s not attacking us,” Gwen dismissed her companion’s suggestion. “I wonder why.”
“Could be dead already,” Richard noted the thing had barely moved.
Ariel flew closer as Caliban slithered into the dark water, disappearing into the murk.
When Gwen’s Familiar was about five meters away, the shaggy orangutang suddenly opened its eyes. Unlike the Water Monkeys they had encountered so far, there was a softness in the creature’s gaze, speaking of benevolent wisdom as it looked straight toward Gwen’s party.
“EEee!” Ariel relayed back.
“It wants to parley?” Gwen spluttered. “It can speak marten?”
“It can speak a little Elemental, the language of the Planes,” Lea informed them. “It says that it’s dying. It would like to speak to our war leader.”
“Why bother.” Lulan cut in. “Let’s be done with it.”
“Lea, ask it if it knows where the other two Mages are.”
Drifting across the bay, Lea conversed with the creature in a way the human Mages could not even begin to comprehend.
“Yes, he says he will tell us.”
Gwen, Richard and the other exchanged furtive glances.
"I want to speak to this thing," Gwen announced.
When the others protested, she cut them off.
"Please. I have to do this."
“Your call,” Richard assured the others before turning to his Familiar, requesting that she kept Gwen guarded at all times.
“Percy, stay here,” Gwen commanded her brother. “The rest of you as well. Lulan, I'll be very careful, I promise. Only I’ve got the range on my Dimension Door. If it attacks, I'll pop right back."
“Can’t you talk to it from it here?” Percy asked. "Get Lea to pass the message?"
Gwen shook her head. It wasn’t the same. She wanted to look into the Chief’s eyes, speak to it vis-a-vis, understand what made these creatures tick.
At Kusu's insistence, Gwen waited until her dogs had paddled through the water and took up defensive positions.
“Gwen, don't get caught up,” Petra warned her.
There was another reason why Gwen refused to bring her peers. From their conversation, it was clear that her companions didn’t register the Ghosts as anything akin to beings capable of feeling or rational thought. If she were to regard the Chieftain’s words with weight, her friends may yet again interfere, thinking that her compromised conscience had hoodwinked their companion.
Petra dropped a Water Walk so that Gwen needn't swim through the muck.
The first thing Gwen noted as she approached the old Water Ghost was the spell of mouldy carpet from its fur. When she was within a few meters from the shaggy thing, she further realised it was wounded, and that its injury had been festering for some time. From the smell it engendered, the creature was likely septic.
“You’re hurt,” Gwen observed, translated by Lea.
“I - dying,” Lea had the words pat down, but her tone was oxymoronically strangely cheerful. “Child of man - why do you listen - others of your kin know only death-dealing.”
“Call it curiosity,” Gwen listened to Lea-Translate, then responded in kind. “Where are the other two Mages? Our Kin?”
“In the closed cavern - below us.”
“Are they alive?”
“Yes - not injured or eaten.”
“Why did you capture them?”
“Hostage - for safe passage.”
“Where and with who?”
“Too - late.”
“Too late for what?”
“The tribe. Too many kin - perish. Not enough now - is ended.”
“We killed your kin?”
“Too many, you have - sent back to the water - no, it matter not.”
“They choose war - we wanted trade.”
“Who is we?”
“I - others. They have fled now - scattered. Only I remain.”
“My son - Lao’lok - he is Guardian of tribe. Hot-headed. Want fight you kin of the stone forest. I - parley. He challenge - took the tribe from I.”
The old thing rocked its head, drool dropping all over its chest.
“All is folly - tribe go wrong. Tribe could have moved - long ago - when your warriors came with fire - but no. I too - think we fight. Then food grew scarce - the fish belly up - the water dwindle. We knew then that there was no win against the kin of the stone jungle - but Lao’lok was too deep in the frenzy. He want only revenge - satisfaction - not continuation. He lost his brothers - his mate too - to your warriors - your iron giants. From you, man-kin, Lao’lok has learned hate - what our tribe of the Shui - had never known. He even take the spirit of our kin for power - to fight you. Lao'lok killed our kin for power - to kill your kin. But land God is JUST. Taboo is taboo. Now - our tribe no more-”
Gwen remained silent for a short while, digesting the old Chieftain’s story. It made sense. The CCP began their expansion into Nantong. They started by clearing the land, draining the swamp. They ran into the Water Ghosts; losses were sustained on both sides. Mages were deployed, more bloodshed ensured. All the while, the local flora and fauna dwindled until the local tribes of Demi-humans began to starve. They got desperate, more clashes, kidnapping, looting for food. The humans then sent more powerful Mages, until Richard caught wind of the opportunity and brought Lulan into the fold. Gwen distinctly recalled that Richard's crew had been butchering their way through the Nantong Frontier for weeks, making dough from blood and bone.
Gwen sighed, both internally and physically. How many Water Ghosts had they exterminated on the way in? Lulan had almost a hundred heads in her Ring and about sixty Cores, including that of the Priest. Presumably, that was this guy's son - Lao’lok.
“I can give you a quick death, end your suffering.” Gwen offered. “But first, I am going to leave you alive, just in case." Gwen took a healing injector and punched it into the weakened creature. "I have more questions for you, but first, where are the captives?”
“The entrance is behind the gathering chamber. You are curious one - Godling.”
Gwen frowned. What the hell is a Godling?
"Gwen, over here!" It was Lea who helpfully located the entrance to the tunnel.
“You two, with me. Caliban, stay here. Ariel, cover my six.” Gwen picked two of the larger hounds to take the lead. She then Messaged her companions across the murk. “Richard, Pats, I am going to check the captives. It should be safe to cross. I am leaving the rest of the dogs with you. Take care of Percy.”
“You’re killing the damned thing, right?” Lulan's voice came across the Message.
“… eventually. Leave it alone for now. I need to verify where the Fung captives are.”
“I’ll be close by,” Percy joined in communal Message, making a 'C' for Crystal. “To offer my luck, of course, when the big one dies.”
“Hahaha…” Richard slapped the boy on the back. Gwen's brother was growing on him.
Across the swamp water, the rest of her party broke into careless, snorting laughter.
Gwen suppressed the depressing emotions rising in her chest. Instead, she focused on the path ahead.
“Ariel, give me some light.”
She didn’t have to go far, a dozen meters later, the narrow tunnel opened up to an enclosed chamber walled off with what looked like stalactites. Before her entry, the room had been dark, but as Ariel came around Gwen began to take in its modest dimensions.
Two figures were immediately apparent, though the scene was hardly what she had anticipated.
Her mind attempted to process the horror show in front of her.
The first figure was a man wearing what looked like half-discarded combat gear, now mangled and bloody. He laid on his back, eyes wide open in terror. Dark blood seeped from his eyes and nostrils, his hands curled, his fingers frozen in rigour mortis. There were two wounds visible, one just below his chest, and another near his abdomen. A pool of congealed blood had already formed around the corpse. It looked as though the man had tried to shove his intestines back into the wound.
Against the wall was a woman in a catatonic state, her eyes wide open and staring into the middle distance. Her face, which Gwen could see was once exceedingly delicate, was badly bruised, with one puffed eye and blood running down both of her nostrils. What was worse for Gwen was that her clothes had been torn asunder, revealing one breast and exposing her lower body. She also sat in a pool of blood, though from Gwen's vantage point, it could only come from one place.
A taste of bile filled her mouth.
An innate revulsion filled her body and she could hardly breathe.
The malignant word reverberated through her head like a thunderclap.
They raped her! She recalled from Jun that the simian Demi-humans were known to have a taste for human women, and now she was seeing its aftermath first hand.
THOSE FUCKING MONKEYS!
An arc of lightning shot from her finger, scorching the walls.
She couldn’t think straight.
The idea of rape had crossed her mind, of course, it was in the news, she saw it in a film, there was plenty of it on the internet, real or otherwise. She herself was no stranger to sexual harassment, not since she hit puberty, but the reality of the scene now presented in front of her eyes was burning a smouldering hole in her brain.
It seemed so real... NO! She had to remind herself. THIS WAS REAL.
Her mouth opened and closed a few times, but still, Gwen couldn’t utter a single sound.
Back in the amphitheatre, Richard sensed Lea’s disquiet.
“Gwen is angry.” Lea materialised before her Master. “Very angry.”
“WAO!” Richard braced himself against his watery Familiar as a wave of Dragon-fear rippled through the floor, permeating the porous limestone.
“Mao!” Lulan circulated her heart-ironed mana. Beside her, Kusu did the same.
Gwen’s hounds began to howl in unison.
Percy sat on the floor to meditate, warding his heart and mind as to keep his stomach’s contents intact and his urine within his body.
Caliban, who had been coiled beside the old Water Ghost Chief, suddenly stood to attention. It suddenly grew in size until it took on its Gila form.
“SCRII! YIP! YIP! YII!” The old Water Ghost rose from his seat.
“What’s it doing?!” Richard opened up Shields, covering Percy and Petra.
“Looks like it’s offering itself!” Petra had the easiest time against Gwen's Dragon-fear. As an Enchanter, a Mind Mage and a Mineral user, her consciousness was well-fortified against all mind-altering effects.
Caliban stabbed four sabre-thick claws into the old simian’s torso, drawing the breath from its body. Then with a mighty heave, it stuffed the thing into its distended maw, head, torso and all. It’s jaws closed with sick, slurping gulp, then the old master of the lair was no more.
Not too far away, Percy savoured the enriched essence pouring into his amulet.
“What the hell happened?” Richard turned to Lea.
“She’s coming up,” Lea informed the party. “One of the Mages is dead, and the other one is wounded. Gwen is really upset.”
The party turned to regard the tunnel, where they could just make out her shadow.
Already, not even fully emerged, her silhouette gave them shivers.