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A note from Wutosama

 

Mina was a girl's girl, the kind that thrived on retail therapy. She was sullen when they entered the first boutique store, peppy when they browsed the third, happy when the trio exited the fifth, and ecstatic when they embarked upon the avenue of the exclusive and exorbitant.

As they tried out dresses, Mina couldn't help but measure herself against Gwen. It was vanity, sure, but a Shanghai Barbie had her pride.

Her cousin stood only five-foot-four but had that winsome slenderness that made men want to hold her tight. Her cheeks had dimples on either side, her face embellished with a pair of dark, almond-shaped eyes that sparkled like gemstones against her milky complexion.

Tao sat drooling, bored out of his mind at the lounge, attended to by an NoM who giggled at his every word. Meanwhile, Gwen and Mina exchanged ideas on the virtues of accessorising.

"I can't believe I am saying this…" Mina checked herself out in the mirror, marvelling at the straight-laced, knee-length one-piece. "But your taste is good. Are there even couture in Sydney? Did you attend a fashion college or something?"

"Oh no," Gwen confessed. "I have an eye for it, I guess? I do have a few Miu outfits, but they were all imported by my mother. Cost her an arm and a leg; I'd wager."

"Well, I am wearing this to the M tonight. You should pick out something too. Remember, it's my gift."

"Sure, but not here." Gwen had seen the price tag. 7 HDM was nothing to scoff at; it was almost half a month of training or several expendable items.

"I'll be wearing this out," Mina informed the shop assistant, who assured her that the outfit was laundered and ready to go.

Mina passed over a crystalline currency card.

Gwen watched the assistant tap the card against a slate device.

Was this a wireless banking system? Did tier 1 cities have a finance sector? If so, how developed was it? If she could find out more about the comings and goings of micro and macroeconomics in this world, then many of her old skills could finally find gainful employment.

"Is that card linked to a bank?" she asked Mina once the assistant was gone.

Mina was no longer surprised by Gwen's lack of common knowledge in anything.

"The currency cards? They're a standard issue. It comes in 10, 50, and 100 HDMs. Higher cards are issued on request. You can convert them from raw HDMs, which tend to have different purities. You're not using raw crystals, are you?"

"Er..." Gwen could hear the crystals clinking in her ring.

"Get em converted at the PBC. There's one on the second level."

"PBC is…"

"People's Bank of China. They issue currency cards, or you can get a topper like mine linked to your Astral signature. Fair warning though, Currency Cards costs crystals to maintain."

Ah, Gwen did not feel confident at all about gaming a centralised currency agency.

"Alright, next!"

Mina's mood improved significantly now that she was in a new outfit. The trio wandered through a dozen more shops until Gwen saw a cobbler store that custom-enchanted footwear.

"You want shoes?" Mina tilted her head. She'd thought Gwen would have picked an expensive dress and was even ready to blow half of her allowance if her cousin from Sydney had chosen a gift without knowing the price.

"I'd like a pair of calve-length boots," Gwen said to Mina. "Ideally leather ones that won't wear and tear if I had to, say, sprint or land from a Jump spell."

"No need to buy the cheap stuff in here," Mina pointed out. "All the top brands offer in-house enchantment for a couple more crystals."

"Do you mind if I take a look?" Gwen inquired. She didn't want Mina to spend a fist full of HDM on ultra-luxury goods when everyday items would do.

They browsed the shop for a few minutes until Gwen picked out a pair of antique-looking women's boots with a soft leather binding. The fit was intimate, the heels neither too high nor low, thick or thin.

"Good eye," the shop owner, who was also the assistant, noted when Gwen tried them on. "Hide of Canadian Ice Auroch, treated and thrice matured, comfortable to wear, supple and durable."

"How much?"

The older gentleman checked Gwen out, his eyes falling at her feet.

"Four HDMS."

Gwen considered her prior market research; it was a fair price.

"I also need these enchanted for endurance and impact. Also, do you think it's possible to enchant the pair I am wearing now?"

Gwen pointed to her Mary Janes.

"Here, take them off. Let me see." The cobbler offered Gwen a set of slippers as she took off her shoes. He ran a quick diagnostic Divination over the pair of Mary Janes, then studied them with a careful eye.

"Mundane… Australian Angus? Not bad, to be honest, but hardly worth enchanting."

"It's for sentimental reasons," Gwen assured him.

The man shrugged.

"Endurance? Self Cleaning? Something more interesting?"

"Just the former two."

"Three HDMs, and I'll throw in a Minor Elemental Resistance."

Gwen looked at Mina, who affirmed that was the going rate.

"Cheaper if I get em both done?"

The cobbler smiled politely.

Gwen realises this was one of those shops that didn't barter.

"Sorry. What's the total?."

"Nine HDMs, for hopefully, a returning customer." The cobbler chuckled. "I can have them done right away. Do you have an hour or so?"

"Mina?"

"Sure, we'll wait." Mina approached the counter to pay.

"No. I'll pay." Gwen motioned her hand over the counter, and nine HDM crystals appeared.

"WHOA!" Mina grabbed her hand.

Gwen flinched when her cousin's face suddenly became contorted with surprise. Mina ran a finger over Gwen's rings. She felt a few motes of magic pass over her Storage Rin, after which her cousin looked up indignantly.

"A… a Ring of Medium Storage?! And a Ring of Evasion?!" Her face was a carnival of bewilderment. "That's…"

About 500 -700 HDMS, Gwen thought to herself. She'd worn her Opa's gift for so long she'd forgotten about how rare it was supposed to be.

"Hmmph!" Mina sulkily sat on the couch, kicking Tao's splayed legs, forcing him to wake with a start. "In that case, you can pay for the shoes yourself, little Miss Richie-Rich."

Gwen smiled at Mina innocently and recompensed the cobbler for his services. Little did Mina know that she was less than 10 HDMs and a hundred LDMs from bankruptcy, nor did she know that Gwen's glamoured Contingency Ring had a market value of over 10,000 HDMs or was near-priceless in reality. Even now, it burned her fingers. For the precious, life-saving ring was a generous loan, one she hoped to repay one day.

Besides Gwen, Mina appeared peeved to be outclassed by a country bumpkin. When the stinging passed, she enquired about Gwen's Storage Ring, asking her about specs, price, who had made it, and so on.

"Your Grandfather is a Magus Enchanter?" Mina's eyes sparkled.

The owner of the shop emerged after a few more minutes with Gwen's shoes. Gwen stowed away her Mary Janes and put on her new midcalf boots.

"How does it look?"

"Looks good enough to eat off of." Tao gave her two thumbs up.

"Thanks, Peaches," Gwen said. "What's the time now?"

"It's about 5 PM." Mina flashed a sparkling braceleted timepiece on her wrist.

"Shall we head over?"

"And be early?!" Mina made a feigned expression of shock. "Never!"

Gwen laughed.

"I want to check out some of the fights, get an idea of what the competition is like."

"You're not going to participate, are you?" Mina regarded her suspiciously. "What can a Frontier Mage do against tier 1 Mages?"

"Ha..." Gwen pivoted from the topic, and Mina chose not to pursue it. "My purpose is academic, I assure you."

"If you must…"

"Let's go then!"

"Let me get my crew together!" Tao announced.

"Hell no, not those shit for brains." Mina groaned.

"Hey! The crew that shits together, eats together!" Tao pulled out his Message device and rapidly began to dial Glyphs into it.

"What the hell does that even mean?!" Mina snapped. "Mao!"

Besides the comedic duo, Gwen thought about the brick-sized Message Device in her Storage Ring. In an emergency, she could probably use it as a lethal bludgeoning weapon. Gwen would need to find a way to generate a steady income soon. There were so many things to buy, and that list would only grow in the immediate future.

Tao complained around the later afternoon that he was hungry, but Mina insisted that they eat at "M on the Bund".

“Let me buy dinner at least," Mina informed Gwen as she went to polish up her evening outfit. "The food there is surprisingly good."

Gwen emerged a few minutes later with one of the outfits she had procured in Singapore: a sky-blue, plunging button-up blouse with a high-waist skirt. It was minimalist yet sophisticated with a hint of flower-child and a dash of urban chic. Completed with her latest acquisition, the endurance-enhanced faux-antique calf-length boots, Gwen felt both cool and confident.

Mina was very impressed.

Tao leered expertly. The skirt and the boots naturally drew the eye toward the thighs.

Mina opened her mouth but said nothing. A few seconds later, she rallied the group. Then they were away.

M on the Bund was a chic, riverside cafe at first glance, furnished in a faux-Victorian setting. It had wall to wall French windows for patrons sitting in the interior and alfresco dining for those who preferred the open air. A series of cooling and heating Glyphs moderated the temperature, while conjuration magic ensured that lavender, bluebells and other perennials were in permanent bloom.

Its actual business, however, was another matter entirely.

After Mina threw the key-Glyph of her car over to a black-suited valet, a bouncer escorted them toward the kitchen, then diverted their progress through a series of underground passages until the sound of pumping music and reverberating bass seeped through the reinforced concrete.

A heavy set of ironbound double doors opened, and light and music flooded the corridor.

It was only 8 PM, but the bar was already in full swing. Within, the metropolis' wealthy darlings congregated, floundering in the vices available only to the rich. The men were mostly in their twenties, though a few fell outside of the mean. Likewise, Gwen noticed an equal distribution of Asians and Westerners here, a stark contrast to the city itself. It either meant that not many Asian youths were wealthy enough to party at a place like this or that this was a place popularly frequented by expatriates.

The women were another story altogether— mini skirts, tight dresses, heels so thin and tall that they could be lethal weapons. The women's calibre was far more rarified than the men, and Gwen recognised instantly the age-old trick of privileging attractive women so that they would decorate the place and attract the men, who were the big spenders. Some of them were like herself and Mina, who were here to experience the M and enjoy the atmosphere, but Gwen could see dozens of girls who may very well be "flowers of the night."

Gwen was glad that she had chosen an outfit so diverted from the purpose of the present scene. Theirs were shimmering and skin-hugging, hers, easygoing and comfortable. It was immediately apparent to those who beheld her that Gwen was neither here to dance nor socialise.

Mina searched for her friends but couldn't locate them in-between the swaying bodies and the flashing lumen globes. Tao, however, was immediately spotted by his friends, who began hooting for the "Big Peach".

Mina's lovely eyes made several revolutions in their sockets before she finally relented in following Tao.

Gwen, meanwhile, couldn't help but smile when they reached Tao's "mates".

They dressed in the same style— a strange concoction of hip-hop fashion from the late 90s and mid-2010s. It was especially amusing because Gwen heard from Mina that those faux-ghetto garbs were worth dozens of HDMs, while ironically made to resemble fashion from the poverty-stricken, inner-urban culture on the West Coast. To Gwen, it was apparent that these were all wealthy wannabes who paid out of their noses to look "ghetto", but that the point of subcultural trends.

"WooooaaaaH!" One of them threw a gang sign, which Tao returned with graceful ease. "Who's the new girl? She is HAWT! Pageant!"

One of the young men attempted to look "thuggish", but his carefully conditioned, flawless skin gave him a gregarious appearance instead. It was evident even to Gwen that the "B-boy" was usually meticulously groomed when not channelling his "inner gangster".

"I am GWEN SONG," Gwen shouted over the music, affirming one of the reasons she'd always hated clubs.

The "B-Boys" introduced themselves. Eric, Lu, Ming, Mack-Daddy, and Little Dog.

"What's with the last two names?" Gwen asked Tao puzzlingly.

"They're artist names," Tao said proudly. "They're illusionist-musicians, like me."

"You're a Musician?!" Gwen asked incredulously. "What do you play?"

"I beat-box!" Tao said proudly. "Peaches Emcee represent!"

"Like a bitch!" someone added.

"Yeah! In the heat!"

"Bringing all the dogs!"

"All the dogs!"

What are you, a dog whisperer? Gwen thought to herself, trying to process the unwavering support shown by Tao's friends. She couldn't tell if they were mocking him or trying to bolster his confidence. Maybe they were just fond of saying the word 'bitches' because it rolled off the tongue? Perhaps ghetto slang translated very poorly into Chinese, especially when re-interpreted into English? She was surprised her Ioun Stone of Comprehend Languages hadn't imploded yet.

Mina glared at Tao's friends, her face well-rested in her signature look of complete disapproval.

"Sorry, Miss Mina." The one called Mack-Daddy apologised. "A slip of the tongue."

Little Dog cleared a seat, and Mack-Daddy borrowed another one from their neighbours.

"Here you are, Miss Gwen. What would you like to drink? Something fizzy, sweet? On the rocks? I'll buy," Little-Dog offered.

"Peaches, go get me a Strawberry Daiquiri, get Gwen a Virgin Mary or something, as long as its virgin."

The boys beamed.

"You don't drink, Cuz?" Tao scratched his head.

"You're a fucking idiot, Peaches," Mina snapped at him. "Gwen's underage."

The B-boys suddenly appeared less confident about their prospects.

"What about you, Mina?" Gwen asked. Wasn't Mina also not yet eighteen?

"Turning eighteen in a few weeks," Mina retorted. "Besides, this is nothing for me. By the way, you idiots, stay away from Gwen. She's an important guest."

"No way!" One of Tao's boys moaned dramatically. "She's right there! She's stolen my heart already!"

"It's only six years plus probation, Eric. Your dad knows a guy, right?. Maybe it's worth it?"

The rest of the crew laughed whole-heartedly, taking mirthful jabs at Eric.

"What's so funny?"

"Eric tried to date one of Mina's juniors once, without realising she was underage, took her to a hotel then fled the scene when she fessed up," Little Dog helpfully quipped.

"Shut up!" Eric tried to silence his friends, and the gang fell about pushing and shoving, cackling madly.

It was an atmosphere distinctly different from Mina's friends, whose exterior bellied an undercurrent of competition and jealousy. Instead, these boys and their interaction reminded Gwen of the larrikins like Jacko and Tako back in regional NSW.

Mina was grinning as well, but Gwen felt that she seemed to prefer the competitive, scheming air of her clique. Some people seemed to thrive on that sort of thing.

The young men passionately asked Gwen about her life in Sydney, but the overloud music made any meaningful conversation impossible. Peaches returned with drinks, and the two girls sipped their beverages while listening to the B-Boys discuss the latest in American Hip-hop from across the sea.

"It's gotta be Buzzy, man. His rhymes are ill."

"Naw Naw, you gotta understand the context. Life in the hoods is harsh, dawg. Only true survivors like Kooholio know the streets intimate enough to be genuine. Buzzy is just a marketing man. All his Lumen-Casts are full of bitches and rides. It should be about resisting the man! You know what I mean?"

"Sure, sure, but how about that Lizzy Knight chic, the who sings the chorus? She was sick in Lil Philippe's casts, totes bonkers…"

Mina appeared to shut off the part of her brain that had to endure their conversation.

Gwen, likewise, could only take so much of Peaches' ghetto sermon on the latest American Rap-trends. She was much more interested in technological or geopolitical trends.

Despite Gwen's no-nonsense attire, she was still intermediately approached by semi-intoxicated men and at least one woman, who wanted to know if she was here to dance and would like to join them for some vertical tango on the dance floor.

Gwen politely declined, and to her surprise, no one pursued the matter. It was unexpected, considering her past experiences in Sydney, where she could somehow attract trouble even in the canteen of a Tower, one day after a city-wide crisis.

Peaches' friends ordered food, and Gwen partook in the dim-sims and other "authentic street foods of Shanghai" that M on the Bund sold in their above-ground establishment. The kitchen, it seemed, serviced both establishments concurrently.

When it was 10 PM or so, the dance floor began to clear. The music died with a sudden pop, and the revellers found places around the club to sit and stand.

A middle-aged gentleman wearing a loud vest presented himself before the gathering and introduced himself as the Master of the Bout, Magus Ji Meng Yuu.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Bout tonight. I hope you've had a lovely month since our last competition, that your purses are full, and that your lucky stars are bright and polished!"

Ji wasn't tall or handsome, but his radio presenter's voice was as deep, resonant, and smooth as butter.

"Tonight, the brightest and the best of the Shanghai's darlings will duel to rule the night! The rules remain unchanged! Challenge each other! Settle a grudge! Most importantly, BET YOUR HEART OUT!"

The crowd cheered, reciprocating the passion shown by the bombastic Magus, who answered their applause by dipping an invisible hat and bowing deeply.

"Our waitresses will be out in a moment to exchange crystals for chips! Don't forget, HDMs or go home! The M is not a charity! The Bout is a show of skill! A show of courage and tenacity! A show of ARCANE FORCE!"

A cage materialised from the dance floor, then abruptly energised before turning transparent. From Henry's past instruction, Gwen recognised it as a form of Force Cage, capable of negating most magical attacks up to tier 7. How extravagant, Gwen thought. How many crystals did it cost to invoke such an effect?

"FIRST UP! To whet your appetite, to loosen your pockets, to get you ladies weeeeet! I present our resident heartbreaker, the reigning champion! Magus CANTO from Indonesia!”

The lights of the duelling field rose to an impressive brightness while the rest of the room dimmed.

"Detect Magic," Gwen incanted softly, channelling a little Divination to her eyes to get a better sense of what she was seeing.

Mages— Mages everywhere. Except for the serving staff, the entire room was awash with leaking motes of elemental magic. It was like trying to look for details in a Jackson Pollock painting.

She quickly dispelled the magic from her eyes and wondered how her Master and her Seniors could use the same spell with such expertise. Did she have to block out the noise? She didn't know. It was another mystery to be solved once she could restore her training regime.

Meanwhile, a silver flash of conjuration mana summoned a near-naked Mage wearing nought but a pair of military cargos into the room. His face was handsome and chiselled, but his most impressive attribute was his rip-roaring body, sculpted and oiled so that the floodlight emphasised every inch of well-articulated muscle.

The women began to whistle and cheer, and even Gwen let loose a few catcalls in the heat of the moment as the well-toned body of Magus Canto gleamed under the harsh ring floodlight.

But why male models? Gwen asked herself jokingly. She could sense the magic radiating off Canto like concentric rings of displaced water upon a still pond. Whatever he may look like, Canto was the real deal.

"As for the CHALLENGER—" Yuu began again. "We have Magus Lamba, from the northern states of India, the Tiger of Punjabi, the Stone Breaker, a Troll Slayer!"

Another flash of Conjuration mana and the audience found themselves in the presence of a dark-skinned man dressed in a brown lungi with a blue waist-sash, his head densely wrapped with a gold-threaded turban in white.

"I hope you've read your invitations and done your homework because the Bout will soon begin. Ladies of M, go forth do your duty!"

Trapdoors around the stage opened to reveal gaggles of young women in outfits so skimpy they may as well be body paint. Like nymphets from the woods, they dispersed around the crowd, taking bets and exchanging crystals for chips as the two Mages in the ring stared each other down.

"This isn't a fight to the death, is it?" Gwen asked Mina, feeling cautiously optimistic about the setup. The club, the setting, the theatrics, it seemed far too elaborate to be an underground death ring. After all, what a waste of the resources required to train a Mage into a Magus if they were to duel to the death for something as trivial as entertainment.

"Well, you know." Mina turned toward the stage. "'No' - but it's not like it doesn't happen. With challengers, it's just ego and good fun. With these mercenary Mages, it depends."

"On what?"

"Who's betting, who's watching. What's at stake. These guys are rogues, with no country and no affiliation. They fight for money, sure, but they also fight so that somebody somewhere could be impressed enough to invite them to join their clan, or organisation, or whatever else."

"Hmm." Gwen kept her eyes on the stage.

The betting took another fifteen minutes or so while each of the Mage showed off cantrips and minor abilities that gave little to nothing away. The challenger had the advantage here, especially if they were unheard of and unknown.

"What's so special about Magus Canto?" she asked Mina.

"He's a CQC specialist, used to be Indonesian Special Forces. When the Micronesian Islands got wiped out, he got abandoned by his team. Word in the M is that he survived in a Purple Zone by himself for a year. If you're wondering, he's a body enhancement Transmuter and a Pencak Silat master."

"Pencak Silat?" Gwen asked. Was it a new school of magic? Maybe indigenous magic.

"Oh man, Silat is the SHIT, dawg!" A torrent of syllables spewed from Tao's mouth.

"Shush, it's starting!" Mina hissed.

The lights dimmed and the betting girls in black faded into the dramatic darkness. All eyes fell upon the two Mages at the centre of the Force Cage.

"NOW! For the moment you've all been waiting for, the first Bout! The showcase! The feast for the eyes! I give you the battle of the two Magus, Canto versus Magus Lamba! The rules are the same as always, first to yield! First to Shield Break!"

A Dimension Door later, Yuu appeared atop the Force Cage, striding over its surface, striking off ocherous bursts of Abjuration.

"BEGIN!"

The two Maguses moved at once.

"Stone Strike!"

"Gaseous Form!"

Magus Lamba opened up with a classic, front-loaded spell he had probably been fomenting since arriving upon the stage. A cascade of sharp stones emerged from thin air and struck Canto's whereabouts, thudding into the wall of force and crashing against the likewise reinforced floors. The range of the spell easily spanned a radius of six meters, catching Canto in the entirety of its blast.

"Cheap move!" someone shouted from the crowd. How tedious it must be if the match ended after one AOE.

Canto, however, had anticipated his opponent's pre-prepared alpha strike. The issue with front-loading spells was the inevitable mana leak that gave the discerning observer clues as to what was coming their way.

Comparatively, his Gaseous Form was near-instant at tier 3, far more practical than the powerful tier 5 Stone Strike. In front of Gwen's eyes, the CQC fighter became a cloud of fog that negated the physical damage from the downpour of razor-sharp stones.

Lamba cursed loudly and waved a hand over the space before him.

"Wall of Stone!"

It was entirely unclear what Canto had changed into as he was still in his gaseous form, but three exchanges into the battle, it was self-evident who had gained the upper hand.

"Stone Skin!" Lamba then surrounded himself with a layer of dark, obsidian-like stones, turning him into "The Thing". The Mage then cautiously examined his surroundings. After all, Canto could not exit the duelling arena without forfeiting, so he must be within the twenty-odd meters or so that the dance floor extended.

Not being able to locate his opponent did not worry Lamba. He was duel-classed as Abjurer and Evoker, defence and offence in one package. As long as he could withstand Canto's sneak attack, he could reverse their chances in a single exchange.

Between the piles of rocks and shards of stone, the audience on the reverse side of the Force Cage could rapidly see Canto powering himself up.

"Haste."
"Enhanced Ability."
"Lesser Polymorph."

"Oh—shit—! It's a-coming! The ass-whooping is a coming!" One of the boys beside Tao began to whoop jubilantly, watching Canto incant buff after buff. This Lamba may be a skilled monster hunter— but he lacked experience in duelling other Mages. If he had been more cognizant, he would continue to batter the stage. Against an Illusionist, one would rather be OOM than let one's opponent have breathing room.

Canto was ready.

"Blink!"

Within a second, Canto was right beside the Golem-like stone Mage. The Transmuter reached out and touched Lamba, feinting as though he was about to deliver a Transmutation spell to disable the Indian Magus' Stone Skin.

"Destruction Wave!"

Lamba had been waiting for Canto as well. He'd been nursing another spell, this time, a wave of rolling shale that should affect even Canto's gaseous form.

"Got you!" Lamba announced triumphantly. In the next second, Canto's illusory form disperse into nothingness. "Shit!"

A second Canto suddenly appeared from above Lamba and landed on him with both legs locked around the Mage's neck; the invisibility illusion fell away as the CQC Mage moved to attack. With a deft twist, Canto struck the stone-sheathed Mage's head with both hands, cupping his hands over Lamba's ears and creating a resounding thunderclap.

Lamba staggered back, evidently affected by the sudden blow against his brain, growing disorientated as he lost his concentration.

Then the rest of Canto's gaseous form fell away, revealing the altered body that Canto now possessed.

A Troll! Gwen audibly gasped. She'd never seen anything more hideous. Canto's arms were long and curved, his legs now extending past the torso of Lamba as the stone Mage futilely tried to throw Canto off.

"Do you yield?" Canto rasped, wrapping long thin fingers around Lamba's neck.

"You can try!" Lamba boasted. "I'll get you yet!"

"Spike Shield!" Bits of floating stones, jagged and sharp, began to spread in concentric rings around Lamba, cutting and slicing into Canto's flesh.

To Gwen's surprise, Canto healed his exterior injuries as quickly as they occurred, restored by the green, algae-like blood that flowed from his Troll-flesh.

"Have it your way." Canto fell from Lamba's body as if he'd lost his grip.

"ITS HERE!" Eric screamed, hooting and stomping in excitement.

Canto dropped about halfway before his elongated body bent into an impossible angle, and his legs wrapped around Lamba's waist. Like a whip, he brought his lower body to the fore, taking Lamba off balance as his long arms swiped the poor Mage's feet from the ground.

In a blind and confused panic, Lamba fell into confusion as he grew airborne.

Meanwhile, in one swift, uninterrupted motion, Canto spun in mid-air and threw himself in such a manner that he and Lamba made a two-seventy degree rotation in the air, ending up with himself on top and Lamba on the bottom, head first.

CRUNCH!

A split second later, Lamba smacked into the Force Cage floor head first.

The shattering strike informed the audience that whatever confidence Lamba possessed now crumbled as the Magus lost consciousness, falling limply onto the floor.

The duelling arena filled with the sound of jeers and cheers, so boisterous that Gwen had to cover her ears with both hands.

"Fuck yeah!" Eric announced triumphantly. "Always bet on Canto! I've just won two HDMs!"

Canto retrieved himself from the floor and made a flourishing bow, returning to his sculpted splendour.

So that's why he's near-naked. Gwen realised. Canto was performing an Incredible Hulk scenario. The military cargos he was wearing must be a self-fitting magic item; else, the girls would be swooning by now.

Lamba was cleared from the stage by two of the betting girls, dressed in nurses' outfits. They placed the unfortunate Mage on a stretcher and rolled his unconscious body over. Hopefully, these sirens would take Lamba to what Gwen hoped was the infirmary and not a dumpster out the back.

The Force Cage disenchanted, and Yuu drifted toward the floor serenely. He began to lay down a torrent of praise on Canto, but his voice became lost in the crowd's wild passion.

Canto went about signing signatures on shirts and sleeves, receiving tips from excited patrons who threw crystalline cards toward his feet. A few of the ring girls hastily collected the M's patrons' generosity on Canto's behalf.

"So, what do you think?" Mina asked, watching Gwen's face flush.

Gwen had to admit, watching two Magus duke it out for one's viewing pleasure was exciting, not to mention educational. She had learned quite a bit about Illusionary tactics just from the last five minutes. Just as she was about to answer, though, an overly familiar hand found its way to her shoulder.

Gwen looked up to see Dai, his face possessing a self-aggrandising grin of supreme confidence. Dai was looking down on her, or more accurately, he was looking down at the plunging U neck of her shirt.

Should she zap the guy? Gwen fantasised, then brushed off his hand. She had plans for the young man, which meant she should stay in his good graces.

"Glad you all made it—" Dai smirked. Behind him was Vivian, but none of the others seemed to be present. "Good fight, yes? Canto is one of the best. I sponsored one of his first fights, you know..."

They waited for Dai to finish the small talk and get on with his obtrusive business.

"Now, Peaches..."

Ah, there we go. Gwen shifted her body so that Dai's hand wasn't so imposing on her wrist. It felt like such a simpleton move, a kind of insecure possessiveness that suggested he was afraid she might make a break for it.

"... didn't you say that you were going to show me a Bout tonight? You still up for it 'gangster'? Or should we square the payment, right here, right now?"

Tao's friends fell into an awkward silence.

Tao himself looked like a deer caught in the high beams of a Radiant Blast.

"Dai… Mr Wei, Peaches' was joking—" Eric tried to intervene.

"Shut your face, Eric." Dai snapped. "We're talking here!"

Eric flinched.

"You wanna fight, bitch?" Tao's demeanour seemed to change after Dai insulted Eric.

"Don't be absurd. You're no match for me. But you know what? There IS someone who wants to fight you, so I am going to make it easy," Dai replied arrogantly. "You win if you manage to beat him."

A young man with a cruel face walked out from behind Dai, whose presence had eclipsed the companion standing behind him.

"Fredrick Lin!" Tao hissed. "The fuck you doing here, fool?"

"I am here for satisfaction, Peaches," Fredrick grinned, flashing his pearly whites. Frederick had an unmemorable Asian face, which would have been handsome were his pallor not so ghoulish from excessive indulgence. "I didn't think the beating earlier today was satisfying enough, so I am here to give you a chance to make it up to me."

"Fred, don't be such a shithead," Mina interrupted them. "None of our fathers want to see you guys fight or get hurt."

"It's just a Bout, a little practice match. Who can fault that?" Fredrick flashed his eyes menacingly at Mina. "You were there this morning. Did I provoke your brother? If you want to blame someone, blame his motor-mouth."

"Screw the both of you," Mina scowled, evidently unused to both Dai and Frederick ignoring her wishes.

"Well, Peaches, you fighting or cashing out?" Dai was relentless. "Don't worry. I know your Daddy's richer than ours."

"Dai," Gwen interrupted them. She shrugged off his hand by withdrawing her own. "I am on Peaches' side."

"Gwen." Dai gave her what he must have thought as a dreamy look. He moved it a little closer to her face.

Wow. This guy has a fucking death wish. Gwen imagined Caliban giving Dai a facial.

From behind Dai, Vivian's eyes filled with venom.

Dai gave her his best smile, then turning coldly to Peaches, his lips curled.

"Well? If you refuse to honour our agreement, I can always contact Daddy and ask for the crystals myself. It's not going to be the first time, anyway."

Tao's bravado was now painted on his red face like a monkey's ass. It was apparent to all at this point that he did not have a hundred HDMs to spare. Neither did Mina, who had spent twenty on her shopping spree, nor did Gwen, who couldn't scrounge up a dozen if she tried.

"How about this?" Dai turned to Gwen, taking another liberal look down her shirt. "If you convince cousin dear here to party with us for a few days, and I'll let the matter go."

Gwen was just about to get up and lay a verbal smackdown on Dai when Tao suddenly let loose a torrent of rhyming abuse.

"Fuck you, Dai!
I'll beat you at your game, any time o the day
Beat you like a bitch, til you got nutt'n to say
Come 'ere; ya loser, I'll show ya the way
Running scared? Too late!
to get on yo knees and pray!"

"OH SHIT, SICK RHYMES, MY MAN."

"WOOT—WOOT."

"What UP!"

His friends, who'd been quiet the entire time, were now hooting and whining, transformed into a riot of jubilation and misdirected support.

Post beat, Tao's face turned as white as a bedsheet.

"I'll take that as a YES," Dai spat coldly, his face multiple shades of overlapping crimson. "Frederick, I want you to make sure he completely and utterly regrets those words."

"You got it, Dai." Frederick grinned at Tao.

"And you." Dai turned to Gwen, evidently having lost patience and gentlemanliness after Tao's taunt. "After this, we'll be seeing each other plenty."

"At what point did I agree to be a part of this?" Gwen waited until Dai was out of earshot before turning to Mina and Tao with a complaint full of exasperation.

Dai had retreated to his little corner of heaven, a VIP area where he and his friends had their private little nymphet waitress all to themselves. Wow, what a shithead, Gwen fumed— if the man was going to be a prick, at leave make good on his promise to give them VIP treatment.

"Anyway, why am I a part of the prize box? I just wanted Tao to come with us."

"Yeah, well…" Mina pinched the bridge of her nose. "You asked to bring Tao— you deal with it."

"Does Dai even know I am… sixteen?" Gwen asked Mina.

"He's rich as hell, and he's an arrogant cad. His father is the Police Commissioner, by the way. So good luck informing the cops. Also, if you know what's best for you, don't involve the Song family. I'll scrounge up what we can and try to pay the man, but if he's really after you body…"

Mina left the words unsaid, but Gwen read the frustration in her cousin's eyes. Mina meant that if this Dai fellow wanted to get rough with her, there was nothing they could do other than escalate. But what happens when that happens? Where does the buck stop?

She looked at the now shaking Tao, whose adrenaline of the moment had faded and who was only now beginning to comprehend the consequences of his actions.

Nonetheless, a hint of sadism rose in Gwen's Frontier heart.

Can't hurt the son of a commissioner?
Boy Blue-balls can't take a "NO" to the face?

No problem.
She could handle that.
There are more ways than one to skin a cat.

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About the author

Wutosama

Bio: I write on the phone and edit at home. Times are tough!

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