Both parties waited while Mayuree triangulated their path through the understory. By now, the contestants were traversing through a network of intertwining branches, vines, and fungal growth so prolific as to form a subterranean likeness. Occasionally, every hundred or so meters, a clearing would appear, exacerbating an explosive growth of new life reaching for the canopy.
"Weal is that way." Mayuree consulted a form of orienteering that required no light, no maps, and no knowledge of geography. It was one of the reasons why Gwen had lent the Diviner to Richard's party.
"I think she's right." Urqu consulted their data slate.
Tica kept her doubts private since she possessed no alternative solutions. The understory wasn't a place anyone could enter, and as such, getting lost was expected.
"Mia is a bloodline Diviner," Richard explained patiently. "She can Scry through the threads of fate to see what will grow: or in this case, where we'll need to go."
"We too have sacred women like Miss Mayuree," Urqu, who was an amateur Diviner, concurred. "I did not expect the Chinese to have seers."
"I am Burmese." Mia collected her dragon bones. "Fudan has many students from the South Sea."
"I am Korean." Eunae raised her hand.
"I am Australian," Richard obliged as well.
"I am half-Japanese." Jiro pointed at himself.
"I am a red-blooded Chinese," Anita declared patriotically.
"You all look the same," Qari, the Fire Mage, spoke up. "Maybe you were all a single Empire, once? Like ours?"
Richard snorted. The rest of the Fudan foursome stiffened.
"Qari, less talk, more action." Tica glared her teammate into submission. "Bring out Peanut."
Sensing that he may be in trouble, the Fire Mage made the gesture for Conjuring Familiars, materialising a bulbous scarab the size of a dog.
Peanut possessed six black-marble eyes and a face only a brood mother could love. Its mandible clicked as it warmed up to its summoner, its dull dung beetle body wiggling back and forth.
"Ew." Lea appeared behind Richard, her exquisite face bespotted by a frown of disapproval. "Yuk!"
Jiro stifled a smile, stroking his flame-plumed bird.
Qari's face flushed, feeling the weight of their reproof. Where Fudan's Fire Mage possessed a beautiful sapient fire-condor, he had a bug. Where Richard's Undine was so titillating as to make even Tica blush, his was a beetle.
"Peanut, scout ahead of us," Tica directly commanded Qari's Familiar.
"Keekeke!" A pair of translucent wings extended from the beetle's shell, then without a word from Qari, it flew into the distance.
"I can use Arcane Eye." Mayuree raised her hand again.
"Not against the flora here, you can't." Tica waved her away. "Watch."
The team followed the hapless Peanut.
For the section ahead, the party had been tracing a kilometre-long path formed from the collapse of a great kapok tree. As the trunk was rotten, the party hovered just above the ankle-deep fungi, proceeding in a T-formation. Uturunku and Richard lead on either side, flanking Tica, followed by Mayuree dousing with her dragon bones, Eunae floated the middle, with Jiro, Qari, Urqu, and finally Sumatika and Anita bringing up the rear.
Peanut fearlessly buzzed forward until—
Without warning, when it crossed path with a glowing bed of fungi, the cluster exploded. The resultant blast flung Peanut sideways. On its shell, the spores rapidly began to erode its chitin, transforming the insect into a ball of furry, tiny mushrooms.
"Immolate!" Qari shot his Familiar a jolt of fiery mana.
Peanut exploded, showering the sodden earth with a splatter of liquid fire.
"Wocao!" Jiro swore.
"Peanut!" In the next moment, Qari conjured another.
"Kekkekkee?" Peanut flourished its mandibles. It appeared to be the same beetle as before.
"Most of the dangers here are hidden," she explained. "We can use our Familiars to set off the predatory flora, but only Qari has one that can be instantly re-summoned."
At the girl's boast, Jiro packed away his feelings of superiority and regarded the fire beetle with respect. He possessed a Firebird, not a Phoenix. If he lost Tanyu, it would be half a day before he could bring it out again. It was true what Instructor Chen had said. Even a cockroach had its uses.
"Oh, is that all?" Richard folded his arms, unconvinced by the exploding bug. "Lea? Help me out?"
Lea hugged her handsome Conjurer from behind, her blue-green pupils mysterious and mischievous.
Richard took a deep breath, then began an all too common invocation, one his Undine would make uncommon.
Two-dozen water Sprites emerged from the soggy atmosphere, pale blue in their nimbus, comprised of delicate faces attached to elongated necks, with fins for arms and a fishtail for lower extremities. Where usually a Mage exhausted their mana at a dozen, Lea continued to call up her brethren with impunity. Soon, a hundred Sprites filled the vacant path of the understory, saturating the air to such an extent that the contestants began to wonder if they were underwater.
"Qari mate, appreciate the effort," Richard dismissed the Fire Mage with a friendly grin. "But look, we're in a hurry, so we'll have to borrow your powers elsewhere. I'll let you know when I am running low."
"Oh, my, they're so cute!" Eunae touched the little fan-tailed fish Sprites as they gathered around her and began to play with her hair. Sumatika, the other Water Mage, became instantly surrounded.
"Ooo…" Jiro tried to grab one, but the Water Elementals avoided him like the plague. The Fire Mage sighed, wondering when Tanyu could become a tiny hottie.
"ATTENTION!" Richard barked.
The dainty elementals lined up into pretty rows.
Like a brigade of English red-coats, the Sprites drifted through the air.
In the distance, a Spotted Panther Cap exploded, filling the passage with infectious spores.
"Eaaarrrgh!" Two Sprites died a dog's death, their vacant spaces immediately filled in by two more.
"How's that?" Richard turned to their Cuzco companions while Lea conjured replacements.
"Is that all?" Tica scoffed. "I was giving Qari a chance to be useful. If that's how you want to compete for CCs, I'll oblige. Conjure Elemental!"
The ground glowed green.
Rows upon rows of broccoli emerged from the fungi. Tica plucked one from the ground and whispered instructions to its buttoned head.
"Amazing!" Eunae brought forth Luyi. "SO ADORABLE!"
"Eee!" Luyi cooed happily. It licked its chops, then bit into one of Tica's broccoli.
The walking vegetable blew a load of pollen on Luyi's face, forcing it to drop the wood-elemental with a yelp.
The party burst into laughter.
"Alright, I'll cover the air, you cover the ground." Richard opened both hands. "Happy?"
"Humph!" Tica brushed a fallen leaf from her priestess' shawl, taking on the bearing of a queen. "Let's move!"
Behind the main party, Qari picked up Peanut from the floor and hugged his beetle close to his chest.
Ahead of them, a cute deer, a cool hawk, a hundred water Sprites and fifty button-broccoli marched on into the jungle's depth, leaping, drifting and flying from mossy branch to fallen log.
"Kekeke?" The beetle scratched at Qari's face in a friendly manner. Qari was glad that Peanut was not yet sapient. Sometimes, not knowing was best.
"It's fine." Qari patted the poor beast, fighting the inferiority gnawing at his chest. "I am fine."
Thankfully, as a Fire Mage, any wayward moisture quickly evaporated.
"JIRO! Alpha-strike! 7 O'clock, tree cove! Take care of the Shaman!"
Just before the contestants settled in for the night, they had run headfirst into their first troll patrol.
Having experienced the ease by which the sprigs and the Sprites had smoothed their passage, the contestants had loosened their guard until Mayuree cried out "CONTACT! Trolls in the TREES!"
Their original waypoint had been a large alcove that Urqu had scouted. When he returned, the shapeshifter had reported naught but a verdant growth of exotic fungi.
Nonetheless, when the party came within spell range of the sheltered cove, what had greeted them was a volley of mustard spores, followed by an eruption of moss-green bodies.
Eunae had immediately set about detoxifying the party while Anita refreshed their armour. What remained of Richard's fish-like Sprites as well as Tica's army of broccoli then smothered the inbound demi-humans, hoping to stall their advance.
From the darkness, a troll raised a sinewed limb.
A wooden spear the thickness of Richard's arm pierced Uturunku's earthen barrier, penetrating just enough so that its envenomed tip almost kissed the Abjurer's chest.
Richard responded by commanding Lea to forgo futile barriers; instead, she was to play the disruptor, attracting toward herself physical attacks to which she was immune. Behind him, Urqu raised a powerful Gust to deflect the accuracy of incoming projectiles, while Qari sent forth his Familiar while readying counter-attacks.
"Dulrag gunvaderakun glogusakum ishie!" a cry came from behind the Mages' barriers, a foul-sounding grunt of compressed rage. "Ulepearag ushhem! Uloar!"
A troll warrior cleared the wall of earth in a single leap, wielding a man-sized block of wood and a spiked, tusked club studded with crude teeth made from harpy-talons.
For the first time, Fudan saw their text-booked enemy face-to-face.
The Amazonian Troll, affiliated to its European cousins, was a stocky, barrel-chested monstrosity of muscle and sinew, with four elongated limbs and dark, envenomed claws. Its hideous face was a mangled mess of moss and craggy crevices, made salient by two beady eyes lit with an inner light.
The troll's tusked lips parted to reveal soft-pink tissue within, its crimson tongue a mess of fleshy-filaments.
Peanut made a bee-line right for its face. When the troll warrior battered the beetle away with its shield, Peanut exploded, covering the creature with flaming goo.
The troll burned.
"HA!" Richard cried out. "Nice work, Peanut!"
"ULOAR!" The troll's skin grew suddenly scarlet. The light in its eyes changed from maddened beast to pure psychosis. Its back bulged, its muscles ballooned, it raised one whip-like limb and threw its club directly at Qari.
Richard's water barrier parted without resistance. Cuzco's Earthen Mage proved a split-second too slow.
"SHIELD OF FAITH!" Eunae intervened, erecting a barrier many times the sturdiness of an Abjurer's shield but costing a disproportionate volume of mana. It was a spell that marked the healer's aphorism of prevention over cure.
The barrier shattered like glass, sending both Qari and Eunae to the mossy, mushroomed floor. Qari reeled from the club's fractured fragments piercing his skin. Eunae self-medicated, fighting the feedback from her disrupted spell.
"SHAMAN!" Tica cried out. "Near the back! In the tree!"
Richard immediately ordered Jiro to take the Shaman with a wide-area AoE.
"TRUE STRIKE!" Mayuree added to Jiro's firepower without a second thought.
The Fire Mage's best spell did not disappointed.
A barrage of flaming bolts, over a hundred in number and growing fiercer with every explosion, enveloped the hollow, once an ancient acacia. The lightless space instantly filled with orange-yellow eruptions. There was an earth-shuddering sound of splitting wood; then gravity sent the building-sized log tottering into the forest floor below.
"Good work! Entangle!" Tica wrestled with two troll warriors who'd been sent into a rage by the now fallen Shaman. Her vines, which could arguably contest a titan boa and even wrangle one to death, were hardly holding the beasts. "Coca! Dissolve!"
Where a troll struggled against her paralysing vines, an enormous Sundew burst through the floor and caught the creature in its sticky embrace.
"Ashavuth gloge!!" came a terrified cry when a sticky glob of digestive juices smothered its skin, dissolved its bark-armour and began to eat into its body.
In the span of a few screaming seconds, the troll grew limp.
Tica gasped, evidently taxed by the display. Nonetheless, she held the second troll at bay. "Jiro! Qari!"
A flaming fusillade met her target head-on.
Acid and Fire, Richard pulled at his lips, a troll's only weakness. These were some unlucky indigenous folks that had happened upon them.
By now, the first berserker had broken through the Uturunku's layered barriers. Whatever spell the Shaman had used, it wasn't just a body-buff, but transformed it into a living battering ram.
"Water Sprout!" Sumatika's spell sent the charging troll careening away from Eunae and Mayuree.
Anita stepped in front of the two support casters, offering her body as a last line of defence.
"Wait! There's more of them!" Mayuree's voice came through the crackling flames, her mana-infused orbs scanning through the chaos for the unique mana signature of the trolls. "Careful! Two above us!"
"Lea!" Richard reacted in time to form a gushing film of water above the team, misdirecting a spear so that its accuracy erred, grazing past Anita's Crystalline thigh-guard.
"Arrgh!" Urqu, who had simultaneously flown up to pry the enemy from the branches, fell to the ground, pinned by an arm-thick spear that caught his wing. Thanks to Anita's Mage Armour, his head and torso were safe, but the spell's design did not provision for shapeshifting.
"Shit!" Richard cursed his lack of hard shields. "ANITA! Keep them safe!"
"Crystal Dome!" Anita immediately formed a protective barrier; though rather than a dome, she had shaped it into a pyramidal structure to divert the troll's spears. "I got them!"
"Aid!" Eunae tossed a stabilising buff to the injured Air Mage. "Luyi!"
Her doe materialised outside the barrier as a deer. It ran forward toward the injured Air Mage, picked Urqu up by the scruff, then dragged him back toward the healer.
"Flame Wing!" Meanwhile, Jiro's hands met with a thunderclap. Tanyu launched from his sides like a meteor in reverse.
"Don't collapse the understory!" Tica warned, sending a Shape Wood through the floor to reinforce their position and check for imminent structural failure. "You'll bury us all!"
As the upper portion of the understory glowed a vivid orange, the remaining berserker recovered its footing. With a mighty swing of its shield, it battered away Sumatika's water bolts, took three of Tica's barbs in the chest, then ate a Fireball from Qari.
Then, the enraged monster smashed into Richard.
"No!" Anita cried out; her heart caught in her throat.
Richard's body exploded, dissipating into motes of water.
"Jet Blast!" A raging, hyper-pressurised torrent struck the troll, sending their red-skinned assailant flying from the understory like a cannonball.
"GARRRGH!" came twin, concurrent howls from above. Two flaming trolls fell from the branches, smashing into wayward bits of lumber before tumbling into the deep dark.
"Flame Arrows!" Qari let loose a wide-volley, peppering the hapless targets until they dropped out of range.
Their vice-captain, Tica, threw the last charred corpse overboard.
"Scrying..." Mayuree traced the whereabouts of the last troll with her fingers, finding nothing within the limits of her Detect Foe. "Okay. We're clear— for now… Are they dead?"
Tica shook her head. "A few are, hopefully. Unless burnt to cinders or dissolved in acid, they'll regenerate and return eventually, usually with more of their kind."
"Persistent bastards, eh?" Fudan's squad leader frowned unpleasantly. No wonder trolls were a menace.
"Coca, that's enough," Tica commanded her Sundew Familiar.
As if to demonstrate the extent to which trolls needed to be processed to prevent regeneration, it spat out what remained of its victim, which consisted of a skull, tusks, and bits and pieces of metal. Amid the remains, there was also a fist-sized, shattered Core.
"Cao!" Anita gagged, as did Eunae and Mayuree.
Jiro set the remains of both berserker alight, just in case.
"We should keep moving," the priestess advised before checking on Urqu's wounds.
"I am hale." Urqu had returned to his human form. "Just a bit sore from the itching."
"Nice work." Tica nodded at Eunae, who nodded back. Even in the midst of combat, Fudan's healer had removed the spear, detoxified the wound, and mended the flyer's mangled flesh. "We should make some distance. Coca can cover our tracks, but we won't be able to rest until they give up the chase. Don't expect to sleep tonight."
"That may not be true." Richard re-materialised Lea at his side. "Don't forget, we've got Gwen's Portable Habitat. We can place the entrance anywhere, even in mid-air."
"… Alright." Tica's sternness softened. She had indeed forgotten about the wondrous shelter. "For now, let's move to an intact part of the understory. It'll be much easier to hide the entrance."
As one, the party moved on. As they flew over the newly formed abyss, they had a good gander at the infamous forest floor. Where Jiro's flames had continued to burn, a colossal swarth of smouldering refuse had carved out an enormous opening, forming a passageway between the layers.
"That's going to attract attention." Jiro doused his flames.
"Yes, because fighting off a patrol of frothing berserkers isn't enough commotion," Richard joked as he scanned the darkness. Now that the fire was gone, it was impossible to tell where their fallen assailants may be lurking. "Mia?"
"I've got nothing," Mayuree apologised. "Detect Magic and Detect Foe don't work well here. I could send an Arcane Eye downward to confirm…"
"No, we have to go." Tica began to move. "Trust me; you don't want to be in Amazonia when it gets completely dark. There are far worse things than trolls here."
"Hey, that's good news." Richard rebuked her worries. "Do they eat trolls?"
After another hour of Diviner-assisted steering in the right direction, the team carefully set up their Portable Habitat some ten-meters up between the arch of two fallen logs. As additional insurance, Cuzco's vice-captain conjured a discrete layer of moss and a carpet of Sundews in all directions to serve as an early warning system and as camouflage.
"Come on in." Richard issued the entry Glyph. "Welcome to Gwen's secret abode."
When Tica and her team entered the grey-space of the pocket-realm, they marvelled at the intricacy of the habitat and its internal power supply.
"We should upscale trade with the northerners," Tica said. "A device like this will make expeditions so much easier."
"There are hot showers too." Richard smiled. "And a working kitchen."
After the tour, Richard made a sumptuous dinner of piping hot ramen rations and all-you-can-eat SPAM. Relaxing showers followed, concluding with room allocations. Anita, Eunae and Mayuree ended up taking the master bedroom, Tica and Sumatika in the guest, while the five men chose to use sleep on spare futons in the living room.
"Good thing Tupaq isn't here," Urqu, who had grown friendly with Fudan's Mages, remarked thankfully. "That guy, he snores like an Amazonian hippo!"
Their first day in the Amazon had been an eye-opener in many ways.
Unfortunately, tomorrow and tomorrow and so on, they would have deeper depths to plumb.
"You're doing this now?" Auberon Lucas stood in the slight drizzle, watching Fudan's Enchantress mark the fort's courtyard. "Really?"
"Sir." Auberon's assistant, Lucy, gently coughed. "Please refrain from granting unsolicited advice."
Inti and his crew likewise stood around the magic circle, watching the spectacle.
"Inti, I don't have a good feeling about this." Tupaq made sure to always position himself between Inti and whatever curio he investigated.
"Not to fear, it's a Planar Ally Mandala," Inti remarked. "An expensive one too."
"Why now?" Tupaq furrowed his bushy brows distrustingly.
"Why not? Better now than never!" Gwen explained. "We can't be doing this if trolls are hammering at our shields."
From the Explorer teams' departure date, two days had since passed. Every evening, their chief proctor had informed the Dungeoneers of the Explorers' progress. So far, their peers had encountered everything from trolls to sentient mushrooms to a plucky Displacer Jaguar but were otherwise safe and sound.
Then, on the morning of the third day, Auberon had received a most unusual Message, one slated for a contestant.
"Inform Gwen Song of Fudan University that the registrar now recognises the individual 'Golos'."
When the Message had been read out, the girl's answer was an ear-piercing "Hurrah!" followed by cries of jubilation and "Petra! It's happening! Get your Glyph tools!"
An hour later, half the fort had emptied out to see what the girls were doing.
Auberon and a few proctors stood to one side; Inti and his crew stood across. The resident Incan Mages, as well as the base's commander, occupied the final quadrant.
"Done!" Petra stepped back from the Mandala, having shown her cousin the process. "Gwen, assuming your pet is in Burma. You're going to need a mountain of Crystals."
"He'll be right." The haughty sorceress entered the summoning circle, then made a gesture akin to tossing a bocce ball. "He's coming through the Elemental Plane of Lightning, so it shouldn' t be too taxing."
"Okay, but I hope you provisioned enough crystals," Petra explained, producing a data slate and a pen. "Also, don't proceed too fast. I need numbers."
Auberon's brows twitched. Are the two of you at Conjure Ally 3101 and not the IIUC? He wanted to ask.
In the next moment, a crate of processed HDMs bundled as a 1000 HDM unit appeared at the circle's centre, making Auberon's heart skip a beat.
Thunk! Another crate.
Even Inti tightened his fists.
"Enough?" Gwen turned to Petra.
The girls' audience stared breathlessly while four crates of HDMs thrummed with captive mana. Four thousand HDMs was no paltry sum. It was enough for a talented Magus to train for a year and a mundane Mage could retire on the same amount.
"Alright," their summoner clapped her hands, suddenly transformed into a ringmaster. "Everyone, please step behind the outer line Petra has drawn for your safety! For the duration of our Amazonian adventure, I'd like to introduce our temporary member, Golos! He's spiky, he's hotheaded, he's got a hankering for fish, and he's a big softie."
Petra almost choked at the last part. If anything, Golos was a murder machine on wings.
Gwen began her chant.
Tei, Lulan and Rene obediently stepped behind the line. Some of them had seen Golos; as for those had not, what they had heard wasn't good news.
Inti's party began to self-buff.
The circle glowed, the HDMs flared, feeding into the Mandala. The rare ingredients used to inscribe the circle burst into motes of retina-searing arcanistry, tearing apart space and time, opening a gate into the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Lightning.
"GOLOS!" Gwen's trilling voice filled the ozone-rich atmosphere as a brilliant bolt of lightning, thicker than an Acacia, struck the circle's centre. "COME FORTH! PLANAR ALLY!"