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A note from Wutosama

 

For an ambivalent few seconds, Gwen entertained the possibility of scuttling the ship with Void Sphere. After looking around the interior of the factory floor, she deemed the unethical impulse impractical, first because the factory-carrier was a modern Titanic with a segmented double-hull and secondly because she wasn't about making fish-food out of NoMs.

"Let us return," she commanded the two men. "I've seen enough."

Disbelieving Gwen would spare their wretched existence, the tottering Mages lead her back up the intestinal-tract passageways, plodding from the tomb-like interior back into the light.

Once out in the open, Caliban huffed, displeased to be away from the reek of death and decay.

"What did you find?" Alesia brimmed with curiosity. When she came close, however, her nose wrinkled. "Fuck'n oath, what was down there? You smell like Kraken guts."

Despite the anxiety burning a hole in her belly, Gwen spared the patience to effect a cleansing Prestidigitation. "I found some shit alright. Gunther, I need your advice on this."

"I figured as much." Her Tower Master appeared happy to help. "Was the hull too thick for our little sister?"

"... Not that kind of help, though I certainly am considering it. So er— I found something downstairs..." Via Silent Messages, Gwen then communicated her discovery.

"I'll take a gander." Gunther left her standing with Alesia while he took the two crew members below. The crew followed with complete obedience, instantly falling into place as her brother-in-craft's most ardent sycophants.

"They tend to do that." Alesia brushed a lock of hair behind her ear. Her sister-in-craft appeared nonplussed by Gwen's horror.

"Do what?"

"Elevate powerful beings into mythoi then worship them," Alesia clarified. "Life in the sea is unpredictable. Brutality and power are privileged above all else. Gunther has got worshippers too, after a dozen campaigns in the Coral Sea. The island Mermen living on Moreton and Stradbroke think he's some sort of Sun Spirit. Despite diplomacy missions dissuading them, he remains the head of their pantheon."

"So he's like Inti, but for Mermen?" Gwen recalled the grinning face of the amicable Prince of Peru.

"Not in the sense of organised religion or Faith Magic." Alesia shook her head. "We're talking run-of-the-mill idolatry, spawns named after him, that sort of thing."

"Hahaha, so there are Mermen named Gunther?"

"And a Clan of Soldier Crabs on Christmas Island called Shultz." Alesia laughed in turn. "Don't make that face— I am completely serious. That's what happens when you leave survivors."

"Surely the Scarlet Sorceress has a band of fishy worshippers?"

"I am far too professional to leave enough witnesses to start a cult." Alesia glanced at the damp entryway Gunther had descended. "That and you need insurmountable power, something that will displace the Mermen's fear of the Deep Creatures that control them."

"Like Krakens?"

"Sure. And any number of similar beings. Oceanic Dragon-things, Deep Flayers, Whales, Leviathans, past the light zone, the deep sea may as well be the Elemental Plane of Water."

"We're not at war with them, I hope? Cambridge says our beef is with the Mermen Dominions."

"For now, though Gunther did mention there are enormous reservoirs of liquid mana under the crust of the continental shelf," Alesia said conspiratorially. "Enough to keep our manufactoriums fed for centuries."

"But tapping those sources would lead to war?"

"Who knows?" Alesia shrugged. "It would be a strange war if anything. We don't want their land, only the liquid mana— and they desire neither our land nor our resource, only our annihilation. Do recall that the Mermen think our Earth is theirs as it possesses far more aquascape than landscape. The Kingdoms believe we are no better than predatory beasts; amphibian aliens evolved to hunt them. It's just as well that we've got plenty of other resource nodes right now. Black Zones like the Elemental Sea and the Amazon have plenty of untapped crystals, Cores, and materials."

While Gwen pondered the possibility of drilling platforms pounded into the crust to slurp up liquidised HDMs like soup from a straw, Gunther returned.

"Interesting find." Her brother-in-craft cleaned himself with a cantrip. "That said, I don't think having your face imprinted on Mermaids is as madcap as you believe."

"Are you saying the Mageocracy should be cool with it?"

"It happens," Gunther said. "I wouldn't be surprised if NoMs somewhere have a shrine to you or Sobel either. Besides, what's happened has happened, so it isn't as though you can enact preventative measures now. Do you even have the time and means to delve for the truth in the dark?"

"No."

"Do you readily know why fishes are worshipping your SPAM face?"

"Not really."

"Do you command anyone with the expertise to carry out an investigation?"

"Nope. Walken's busy, and Richard's still studying. Maybe Ollie?"

"Then, don't worry about it." Gunther shrugged. "Whatever this is, it can't be worse than being the world-famous Summoner of the Shoggoth. I am not saying you should strike this incident from your mind, but that you shouldn't dwell out of fear. Leave the investigation to the professionals, report this to your superiors."

"That's good advice," Alesia gave her two cents. "After your display on Anglesey, there was talk of what to do with you. You should thank your sponsors for keeping your detractors silent. The tattoo thing is going to turn some heads, but that's nothing compared to the clout needed for letting the Devourer of Shenyang fly around the world at her leisure."

"I feel…" Gwen tried to grasp the disappointment in her heart. "Relieved, but not really?"

"Well, are you cultivating a cult?" Gunther grinned at her. "If so, let me know. Else, let the Mermen be. What are you going to do if they start hollering your name? Spare the fish that bear your likeness from the tinning machines? Start an Undersea Union like that Void thing you're pushing?"

Alesia burst into laughter.
Gwen did not appreciate the humour taken at her expense. "Okay, so what do we do about these guys?" She pointed to the still prostrating sailors.

"Nanang," Gunther addressed the bowed Third Mate. "Can the ship sail?"

"With repairs, O lordship, we can manage coastal travel," Nanang answered. "The bridge is shattered, but we can operate the Engine Room by hand as Magus Song has spared the Enchanters."

"Good, then repair the ship and prepare to sail for Singapore. Keep the fish below on ice. Once we're in port, I'll have someone collect them, and your crew."

"We're not destroying the evidence?" Gwen raised both brows.

"Of course not," Gunther said. "Why, do you have something to hide?"

"No."

"Then tell the world you are bemused by the discovery," Gunther said. "Put it in the tabloids. The more people know, the more diminished its significance."

Gwen pondered her Brother-in-craft's advice, realised his wisdom, then nodded. "I'll put it in my paper, with pictures. And I'll CC up a quest for more information from the Shard."

"Good girl." Gunther patted her head. "You learn quick."

"And the crew?"

"Their punishment cannot be disregarded, though a compromise isn't impossible. I can put you within ear-shot of Chief Arbitrator Kwok, but you must accept his judgement, whatever the outcome. Is that clear?"

"Crystal."

Seeing that Gwen was satisfied, the Tower Master turned from his siblings-in-craft, growing radiant as he rose into the air. A second later, an inspiriting wave of compelled worship bathed the trembling sailors.

"Nanang, you're acting Captain until we return. If anyone asks, this ship, its crew and its contents are now under the jurisdiction of Magus Song of Cambridge, Class VI War Mage. Until we return, repair the engine and keep the Shielding Crystal stoked."

"AT YOUR COMMAND." Nanang and his ilk wept with spontaneous affection, exhibiting so much passion that Gwen felt sorry for the mind-washed sods. "We live to serve, O Deva of Batari Sunan.

"See how easy it is to be worshipped, intentionally or otherwise?" Alesia whispered beside Gwen's ear. "Say, do you think Gunther would look dashing in a priest's coat and collar?"

"Dashing and celibate."

"All the more fun to sin with…"

"Strewth, you two." Gunther furrowed his brows at the grinning women. "Get changed!"


Alesia squeezed Gwen's arm when Gunther stepped from the lower deck, strapped from chin to heel in a suit of Aries MK IV Dragon Skin.

"So dashing..."

"Dashingly excessive, don't you think?" Gwen fought down an impulse to laugh. Standing in his form-fitting golden armour, all Gunther needed were a pair of green pantaloons and DC would be sending Sydney Tower a DMCA notice. "Who are you supposed to be, the King of Atlantis?"

"It's a bit much, eh?" Gunther flexed his Leviathan-scale gauntlets. "This is only the second time I've worn it. Would you believe me if I told you the design favours function over form?"

"You're going to draw every Dryad on the island." Gwen shielded her eyes against the Dragon scales, each polished with a Mithril solution then Rune-carved to enhance Gunther's Radiant Aura. "You know how they like men and Radiance."

"All the easier to lead us to Sufina," Gunther said, toning down his passive aura. "If you're that uncomfortable, I've got a normal suit of armour as well, standard military issue."

"No, no." Gwen shook her head. "Think of it like this. We'll see you coming even in a dense jungle."

Standing beside the Tower Master, Gwen felt her stylised Shen-teī cloth-plate had lost its lustre. Alesia as well appeared meek in her combat suit, despite it being visually titillating and dyed in her favourite colour.

"Then let's not dawdle." Gunther's scales bathed the deck in light. "Gwen, do you remember where the Grot was?"

"Sure." She produced her Omni-Orb. "I think."

The trio had three routes to reach Sufina.

One was to enter from the edge of the forest and trek their way toward the Dryad's Grot; the safest but the most time-consuming path.
Another involved flying overhead until the Orb ceased movement, then dropping down spells-blazing to clear whatever critter or monster lurked below; the fastest route.
The final method, curtesy of Gwen thinking of alter-world GPS, was to triangulate the whereabouts of Sufina's Grot by flying circles around the island and taking note of the Orb's directional changes. After that, the party could penetrate the tropical jungle by clearing an inconspicuous patch of forest a convenient distance away.

After careful deliberation, the Apprentices chose the third route to avoid becoming bogged down by monsters hiding in the tall grass, furthermore repelled by running Desolation Aura on full-blast. Small, poisonous critters attracted to the warm flesh and blood of the casters would be naturally wary against an aura of all-consuming hunger. At the same time, monsters and Demi-humans strong enough to resist would know to avoid the trio.

Ten minutes in, they found their first Dryad half-draped across a Banyan's fanned bowers. Upon sighting the invaders, the island nymph swung down on the tree's tendrils, her willowy hair a waterfall of flowers, her long limbs tanned Fragipanni stems bespotted with pale blossoms. In the Dryad's hair was a matching host of pink blooms, adding a dash of colour to the hard-bodied native.

"You?" The Dryad's eyes alighted on Gwen. When the woman tip-toed forward, Gwen once more questioned the intelligent design behind gifting Dryads ginormous bolt-ons. "I know you."

"We're here to see Sufina." Gwen raised both hands to communicate her peaceful intentions.

"The Lady knows of your arrival, although..." The Dryad licked her lips. "Perhaps my sisters and I can entertain your companions on her behalf? Your last visit thoroughly seeded the grove."

"Not this time. Our business is urgent and private." Gwen fought down a throatful of bile as she imagined a host of Hai-wrought seedlings skipping about the place. "If you could take us to Sufi forthwith, your kindness will be much appreciated.

"How appreciated?" the Dryad made eyes at Gunther.

Gwen had planned and rehearsed her next response, and so quickly produced a mote of Almudj's Essence. "How about a taste of paradise?"

The Dryad's eyes widened, revealing the hard yellow orbs beneath the mossy lashes, both burning with desire. "Oh, you sweet thing, I could just eat you up."

"The feeling is mutual." A jolt of Void Mana circulated through her Desolation Aura. Visibly, the moss and grass around her feet wilted.

"Come." Gwen watched as the woodworker's wife stiffly obliged, evidently changing her mind. "Lady Sufina awaits. And I trust you not to renege on the reward."

As before, the woods seemed to part, cleaving a path from the wilderness. Lead by their guide, the trio met no resistance, feeling both silly and overdressed.

Some thirty minutes later, the woods attained a density akin to Amazonia. The number of Dryads coming out to watch them had also increased to about a dozen, each more nymph-like than the last, all making moon-eyes at the stone-faced Tower Master. The atmosphere grew incrementally more fragrant as well, becoming so thick with pollen and perfume that Gwen wondered if they had stumbled into a supernatural bordello.

"We're in an arboreal sub-space," Gunther informed the two of them, his nose wrinkling. "Did you sense the change, Gwen?"

"Yes. It feels like when I quested in Peru." Gwen felt thankful they came prepared after all. In a sub-space like this where distance grew arbitrary, anything could happen.

"Keep your eyes peeled, and don't touch anything."

"Right. Should I bring out Cali?"

"No, let's just keep going. Allie?"

"Gunther," Alesia whispered conspiratorially. "Check out the tits on that one."

"I shan't." The wisest man Gwen knew walked on like a monk.

Much to the trio's relief, their anticipation for a perfumed ambush proved unfounded, for the forest path grew gradually familiar, becoming akin to the sheave-strewn passage in their collective memories.

"We have arrived." The Dryad withdrew beside her, drawing to Gwen's height.

Gwen dispensed a tiny mote of her blessed Essence, then watched the wood-woman susurrate with joy as she retreated.

"Oh my…" Alesia grew misty-eyed as she walked the landscape of their yesteryears. "This is Master's…"

"I know." Gunther touched her arm.

While her siblings indulged in the past, Gwen felt overwhelmed by an inscrutable feeling of familiarity, one that blended with recollections of her Master's Grot, obfuscating her attempts at elucidation.

Her time to think was short, for after another stretch of dubious distance, the Apprentices of Kilroy promptly arrived at their desired destination.

In front of a vined gateway, the unmistakable profile of Sufina stood beside the atrium of Henry's Grot.

Spontaneously, the girls' eyes misted over, for though Sufina was a changeless being, the Familiar had nonetheless changed.

During their halcyon Sydney days, Henry had suffered Sufina to assume whatever guise she coveted. Sometimes, when the mood was right, Sufina toyed with wearing Gwen's likeness, while other times, she wore Alesia's. Now, Sufina was herself— a flawless, peerless beauty, but one deeply entrenched in the uncanny valley of human-mimicry. Now, from her fiery tresses of mossy hair to her pale blonde skin to the dagger-feet stalks that made up her disproportionate lower limbs, their former "Mother" appeared the perfect creation of an otherworldly doll-maker.

"Lady Sufina."
"SUFI!"
"Sufina…"

Three separate namesakes emerged from their lips, each indicating the place the Dryad held within their hearts. To their eldest, Sufina was a feared matron, a mentor and a tangible manifestation of their Master's valour. Alesia, alternatively, saw Sufina as a mother of sorts, filling the void of womanly-affection in her formative years. As for Gwen, Sufina was a companion of her Master and her teacher, as well as a friend.

"Children grow up so fast." Sufina's lukewarm response dimmed the fire in their hearts. "And what is this? Combat suits? Are we foes and not friends?"

"Master taught us too well." Gwen bowed in an immediate attempt to thaw the icy atmosphere. "You're to blame, Sufi. The Familiar we know is, after all, a force of nature and a peerless princess of thorns. I wouldn't dare intrude on your domain without a certain conviction."

"Do you fancy yourselves a match for me?" Sufina's hair lengthened, adding to her menacing air. "A Dryad Hierophant, now untethered from Henry, with the might of my Grot at my beck and call?"

"Sufi…" Alesia stepped in front of her husband and Sister-in-craft. "Sufi, we would never hurt you. Ever."

"Allie." Sufina outstretched a hand. "You always were the sweetest one. Come to Sufi, dearest."

Their Sister-in-craft went to the Dryad despite Gunther tugging on her suit.

"My child." The Demi-goddess of Abang cradled the murky-eyed Alesia close to her bosom with the infinite patience of a Saintess. When she gazed up at Gwen and Gunther once more, they could see the mocking defiance in the Dryad's eyes, as if to deride them for their faithlessness.

"Sufina." Gwen felt her heart soften at once. Though she hated the uncertainly, she chose to err on the belief Sufina yet recalled their time together. "It's good to see you again. May we see Master?"

"You may." When their mother-figure stroked Alesia's hair as one might soothe a kitten, their adult sister began to sob like a lost child, making Gwen's heart sore. "This way."

The tunnel of roots the trio passed through wasn't a tunnel at all, but something of a pocket-space, the kind materialised by willing the Astral Plane into substance. When the party re-emerged, the scene that accosted Gwen was nothing short of dreadful.

There in front of the trio lay Henry's garden.

And there, under the leafy pavilion of a great Banyan with impossible autumn colours, sat a lone figure beside a vine-wrought table, occupying one of four chairs. There was a basket of manna bread on the table as well, sitting beside a trio of cups and a jug of what could only be Golden Mead.

At the sight of Henry's propped-up body, Gwen felt every follicle raise in alarm.

"Master!" Alesia pulled from Sufina and ran for the life-size diorama.

Gwen attempted to retrieve their sister, only to be intercepted by her brother.

"Let her be," Gunther said, shaking his head. "Allie needs this."

"But—"

"There's no Necromancy here," Gunther assured her. "This is Alesia's way of keeping a part of herself... alive, I guess. As for Sufi..."

Gunther sighed.

Gwen's chest rose and fell, ambivalent that her Master's body was being used as a prop. Meanwhile, Alesia reached Henry Kilroy's reposed remains in a matter of seconds. From afar, it would almost appear as if Henry was alive and receiving his second Apprentice.

The implication of Sufina playing dolls with Kilroy's carcass made Gwen question whether Sufina's lingering sentiment should be extinguished after all. The dead must have peace, or so she was taught. Or was that a prejudice she had inherited from her previous incarnation? Logically, shouldn't a lucid Sufi trump all else?

"Gunther, do you think…"

"I somehow doubt we could." Gunther's eyes scrutinised their sometimes summer home. "There's a tangible difference about the Grot, do you feel it?"

"I do!" Gwen nodded vigorously. "Doesn't it feel too... real?"

"Aye, the sub-space here is unusually stable, more than even when Master was alive," Gunther agreed. "I don't think I can disrupt it even if I tried. Breaking out of here is going to take a lot more than a Mass Teleportation scroll."

"Is Sufi tapped into the ley-line on the island?"

"She's entrenched deeper than that," her brother-in-craft replied. "Something's different about Sufina as well. Dare I say she is possessed of a higher bearing than I had anticipated? She says she's a Hierophant-class, but that's a lie."

Across the room, Alesia knelt, holding Henry's limp hands. To both Gwen and Gunther's chagrin, she kissed the dead man's palms, then placed the cold flesh against her cheek.

"How do you mean?" Gwen shivered.

"Like Golos to Ruxin." Gunther met her gaze. "Or… like the Yinglong to Almudj."

Gwen's throat bobbed twice in quick succession. "My Essence can elevate Golos' chicks. Sufi has my Scale, maybe. Do you think..."

"It's a possibility, but the Scale is yours."

"I made Master draw on its Essence to help him recover from Sobel—" Gwen tried to recall a fuzzy past. "By which I mean, I told Sulfina to oblige in Master's stead..."

The two peeked at Sufina, who was presently observing the father-daughterly interaction between Alesia and their Master's remains with immeasurable benevolence.

It took a whole other minute for Alesia to take her place on the chair Sufina had set up, after which both Dryad and sorceress awaited Gwen and Gunther's arrival.

The very idea of Sufina serving tea to three alive Apprentices and a dead man unscrewed her brain from its spinal stem, but what else could she do?

Following her laconic brother, she arrived at the table, joining her sister as Alesia mopped up snail-trails left by overwhelmed eyeliners.

"I am so glad Sufi preserved Master." Alesia dabbed the corner of her eyes. "To think I never saw Master again after that arch-whore tricked us out of the Grot."

The two of them humoured their middle sister while Sufina flittered about the foursome, placing plates and forks, filling their cups with Golden Mead from the jug.

"Drink," the Dryad commanded, her amber orbs holding captive Kilroy's wayward children. "Partake."

Alesia took a bite of the manna bread, moaned softly with remembrance, then drank the mead.
Gunther took a sip to wet his throat, then swallowed the manna slice wholesale by rolling the dough into a ball.
As for Gwen, the moment Sufina's Golden Mead graced her lips— she found the source of her earlier befuddlement.

ESSENCE!

There were motes of Almudj's Essence in the Golden Mead, mixed in with the Dryad's life-force!

To the others, the dew might revitalise their mind and body. But to Gwen, she felt akin to a stagnant billabong long cut off from a meandering estuary refilled by a thundering wet season.

There was no doubt in her mind now that Sufi had kept Amuldj's keepsake.

"You know, I dreamt of this moment." Sufina's voice came to them as though in a hazy daydream, filling the chamber with its echo. "Henry and our Apprentices, sitting under the shelter of my bower, drinking mead and breaking bread, speaking of things tomorrow would bring."

"In this, I think you and Master's wills are one," Gunther said. "Our teacher's kindness enfolds us all, even in his passing."

"But of course, your Master's gone," Sufina continued to speak. "But this moment doesn't have to be. Wouldn't it be nice if we remained together like this, forever?"

The garden grew suddenly silent. Above the trio, the Banyan tree's accomodating canopy turned gothic. Sufina stalked about their Master's body until she cradled Henry's head against her bosoms.

"Sufina." Gunther swilled the liquor in the cup. "I sincerely hope that was a passing fancy and nothing more."

With her hands placed on Henry's shoulders, the Dryad's exquisite face looked down on Kilroy's most auspicious Apprentice. "Is that how a child should speak to his mother?"

"Gunther doesn't mean it as a threat," Gwen intervened, realising she had to diffuse the situation before Alesia could add kerosene to the embers. "Sufi— you love us, I hope, and we all love you. We're not going to harm you, and I know you don't want to harm us. If you did, why go to all this trouble? Why put together this scene if you cared to hurt us? We can't humour your wishes, not exactly, but we can compromise."

Sufina's expression grew pained.

"Master's gone." The Tower Master's tone softened as well. "That thing in your arms is a cicada husk. Were it not out of consideration for you, Sufi, I would have cremated Master to protect his remains against Sobel and her allies."

"Why are you here if not for Henry?" Sufina asked.

"Respect, assurance and closure," Gunther explained. "That and we would like to enquire about Master's surviving Grimoires for Gwen's sake. We're also here for Almudj's Scale— if you have it."

"The Scale…"

"Yes." Gwen gulped, realising the moment was upon them. "Sufi, I understand what happened to me now, both during the Field Trip and while repelling Sobel. Almudj had made me his Vessel, and the Scale was my Conduit to my Patron. I need it back."

The Dryad studied their youngest, her gaze landing on Gwen as though for the first time. "Henry had an inkling… but you were so weak back then, so insignificant and mewling. How could someone so meek be a Vessel to a Mythic? Your body would explode like an overripe melon."

"I wouldn't say I am meek anymore." To illustrate her point, Gwen circulated Essence until her presence appeared magnified. Then, the formerly 'meek' Vessel cupped her hands as if in prayer, filling the void in-between with simmering, rainbow-hued Essence. "You see, I've hit a growth spurt of late. Care to check for yourself?"

To the trio's relief, the Dryad nonchalantly sauntered from Henry's seated corpse to stand beside their youngest, conceding her earlier threat to the realm of impulse. With the bare bark of the Dryad's belly an inch from her face, Sufina cupped Gwen's hands with her long digits, then dipped a finger into the Essence puddle.

The flesh of Gwen's palm tickled as a mossy mass of micro-roots kissed her skin like a host of dancing spiders.

"Oh…" The Dryad's face grew flushed, causing the woodgrain beneath her complexion to darken. "This… the Elder One, and yet it isn't…"

"What you're tasting is 'me'." Gwen grinned. "I've been cultivating Essence on my own. Do you like it?"

Sufina placed a hand against Gwen's cheek. "What have you become, Gwennie? What would your Master say?"

"I am a Void Mage, a self-sustained variant." Gwen affectionately wrapped her arm around the giantess' waspish waist. Unexpectedly, the Dryad's torso was warm and supple. "Master succeeded in me, Sufi. He has found his Omni-Mage, and I'm not even half as crazy as Sobel. My sanity is certified if you must know— I passed all my Mind Mage evaluations with flying colours. If Master were alive now, he would have no more regrets— Sobel aside, of course."

"Sobel…" Sufina's lips curled into a snarl. "She's still alive?"

"She is." Alesia hung her head in shame. "It took us some time to recover after Sydney."

"When will I see the harlot's head?"

"After Gwen's graduation," Gunther said. "We who are Henry's hounds will purify Master's legacy. Would you like to join us, Sufi? If you aid us with Tree Stride and Terraform, we'll make far better progress cornering Sobel."

Sufina wasn't the sort of Demi-human who needed to breathe, but she sighed nonetheless in a humanistic manner. "I fear not."

Both Gunther and Alesia appeared puzzled by her refusal.

"I would have imagined you to possess more zealousness," Gunther commented. "But of course, if your feelings have dimmed…"

"They have not." Sufina played with Gwen's hair, then left their youngest Apprentice to walk toward the Banyan at the centre of the grove where her Heart Tree rose up and above them. "And they will never diminish. Because of this…"

At the Dryad's touch, the tree's bark parted, revealing a network of fibrous sinews tethered around what looked like a root-knot. When the Apprentices channelled mana into their eyes, they saw that the knot was roughly spherical and semi-transparent, with what looked like a pulsing bean of intense vitality inside an eggshell of tender green fibres.

"The Scale!" Alesia yelped. "Eureka, Gwennie! That's your Scale!"

Gunther's eyes glowed with diagnostic magic. "I don't think that's her Scale anymore."

"I know." Gwen herself inherently understood the "Conduit" they now observed was no longer her keepsake, else the resonance she should be feeling would have filled her with unbidden euphoria. "I don't feel anything from it."

"That's because it's waiting." Sufina steered Gwen toward the heart-tree of the Grot with a hand. "It awaits your awakening touch."

"It is?" Gwen looked to Gunther for instruction. Finding none, she looked toward Sufina for elucidation.

Sufina extended a lithe limb over the Heart-Scale, then let drip a drop of Gwen's Essence.

The Scale pulsed.
The Apprentices suddenly heard the roar of rough surfs eroding golden shores, soothed only by the bubbling silt caught between the peeping roots of mangroves.
They smelled in their nostrils the hard clay and felt the fine sediment of the red soil baked until cracking by a harsh, cloudless sky.
They tasted the brilliant fragrance of eucalyptus on their tongues, spicy, aromatic and enveloping.
Then in their eyes, they briefly saw a pink lake of such largess that their feeble human minds struggled to encompass its full expanse.

"There is always a Tree," the Dryad said, finding no unusualness in her aphorism, using no enjambments or emphasis, not even a lilting syllable to punctuate her point. "And there is always a Serpent."

Alesia nodded, as did Gunther.
Comparatively, Gwen's cognisance thundered with the force of an August storm whipping fields of cane into mass hysteria.

"There is always a Tree."
"And there is always a Serpent."

In between her well-rounded ears, the Elf Queen's truth at the Tree of Tryfan trumpeted in her brain with the force of a Barbanginy.

Tree.
Serpent.
Sufina.
Almudj.

Holy fucking shit! Her mind grew riotous as her eye once more rested on the eggshell enveloping her Scale, now nestled in the womb of Sufina's Heart Tree.

Did... did her patron Serpent just knock up her patron Dryad?

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Wutosama

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