The event organisers made the necessary changes to the schedule immediately, distracting the impatient crowd with teams of scantily clad waitresses who dished out coupons then promoted the benefits of club membership.
Another team cleaned out leftover magical debris, after which Yuu once more made his presence known.
"Alright, alright, ladies and gentlemen! We have a real treat for you, a Bout of ego! A contest of pride! A match between friendly rivals! A clash between the illustrious Clan of Lin from the Huashan region against Wang Xing Enterprise of Shanghai!"
A staccato bass filled the club basement. Emerging from the mist and surrounded by cheering "brothers", Tao appeared from the east end.
A wave of disappointed booing resounded from the crowd, from which Gwen inferred this was not Tao's first rodeo.
"What are Peaches' talents?" Gwen asked Mina. It wasn't polite to do so before, but now Gwen wanted to be prepared for what was unmistakably a poorly matched battle.
"Illusion and Air." Mina slumped in her chaise, exhausted before the night had even begun. "Fredrick is Fire and Evocation, but his Affinity and techniques are top-notch, even by our standards."
"Does Peaches have a chance?"
"Sure, the same chance as an Ice Mage stuck in the Elemental Plane of Fire."
Unexpectedly, only a handful of people cheered Frederick as well. Gwen guessed that there was no sport in wasting breath on a one-sided beatdown.
Yuu was still trying to rile the crowd up, but not even someone of his calibre could inspire the betting pool to get any larger.
"The Challenger! Tao Wang, AKA Peaches, The King of Fruit, a practised master of the illusory arts! With a record of all losses, he may yet be the ticket for some to beat the odds and break the bank!"
The crowd booed.
"The Defender! Fu Lei LIN, AKA Frederick, a prodigy we know well, a master of Evocation, from the illustrious Clan of Lin upon the mystical Mont of Huang, with a steady record of six wins and one loss, as steady a bet for pocket change as any other!"
The room dimmed.
The Wall of Force went up.
There remained only Tao, Fredrick, and the illuminated space of the arena floor.
Four other Taos appeared beside Gwen's cousin.
Gwen expected Fredrick to open with a barrage, but to her surprise, the Evoker quietly stood and watched as Tao continued to weave spells.
The spells were directed at Fredrick, but the nature of "Image" spells lay in manifesting visions from the coalescing mana, visible to all and very much reliant on deception.
Tao's first "Image" was one of his friends, Little-Dog, who was rapidly throwing gang signs whilst mouthing something with a rapid flutter of his lips.
Besides Gwen, Little-Dog began to deliver a rhyming sermon of bombastic beats, as if providing an audio track for Tao's Silent Image.
Gwen's attention returned to the fight with a terrible suspicion.
The next one, the "Major Image", came with sound, appearing as Mack-Daddy carrying a boom-box, moving to the rhythm of a tune that only Tao could hear.
Graffiti, stage lights, and other visual and auditory effects joined the rapping trio.
"Humpty Dumpty, you bitches be rusty
I ma knock yo shit down
DAWG, you gonna go against me?
I'm a take ya downtown
like you're soft cream cheese
I ma hit you with sick beats
This MC is gonna school you…"
At least a dozen of the crowd groaned, Gwen among them.
She had to admit. It was, in fact, a catchy tune. This aspect of Illusion was a kind of Spellcraft Gwen had read about in textbooks but had never experienced due to the Frontier's emphasis on military service.
In her limited experience, she had seen Lumen-Casts of daytime drama and propaganda lumen recordings. The notion of a "Pop" producer who was a powerful Illusionist that created audio-visual spectacles was indeed a viable career for those with talent.
And though the Path of an Entertainer-Mage was not a career lauded by the respectable member of society, it was a Path that possessed immense allure for the young men and women, whose existence was haunted by the possibility of sudden, inexplicable death on the Frontier.
However, Tao's unusual competence and control didn't matter, for he was a Mage Duel, a demonstration of arcane might and spell force, not a beatbox battle in the Bronx.
That much became apparent when Fredrick had run out of patience.
"Wall of Fire!" At his behest, a flame barrier rose from the floor atop of which Tao rapped to his heart's content.
"Peaches!" Gwen called out, alarmed. Her cousin was still blithely pipping away, swaying his body this way and that, an instant before he became honey-glazed char-siu.
"Bitch! You missed!" Tao's voice taunted his opponent from another part of the arena. "Magic Missile!"
The flames passed through Tao's body harmlessly, turning the Illusion semi-transparent. A volley of arcane force, invisible to the naked eye, assaulted Frederick where he stood.
An orange barrier intercepted Tao's attacks without apparent effort.
The young man was well trained, Gwen acknowledged. Shielding was the common weakness of an Evoker Elementalist, but Frederick had poured thousands of hours into fortifying his fundamentals.
"You're such an idiot, Peaches," Fredrick riposted with an insult and a spell. "Fireball!"
A mote of flame shot from his finger and struck the barrier behind Tao. In a split-second, the orange legume of fire blossomed into a semicircle dome, conflagrating half of the Force Cage.
One of Tao's rapper-illusions immediately burst into motes of untethered mana, dispelled by the disruptive invasion of heat and fire.
"Fear!" a voice cried out from somewhere in the cage. A shimmering silhouette indicated where Tao had been hidden, which was thankfully not in the corner now filled with fiery destruction.
Invisibility! Colour me impressed. Gwen whistled. Tao wasn't so useless after all. If only her cousin had another mode of offence or had better damage output, then he might have taken the match. Unfortunately, it looked as though Tao possessed very little in the way of direct damage.
Presently, an abjuring halo glowed around Fredrick's head, indicating that Tao's illusory assault had failed to connect with Fredrick's consciousness.
"Bloody hell," Mina growled, stabbing the ice in her drink with frustration. "As if someone from the fucking Lins of all people wouldn't have a Mind Shield charm. What a waste."
"Is having a Mind Shield a common thing?" Gwen inquired, wondering if she could get one as well. It was a Phantasmal Killer spell that had brained her during the Blackheath incident.
"Common enough," Mina replied. "Most of us military-gen kids had to undergo training as well."
Tao's terrible decision in using a psychic assault proved to be his undoing. Fredrick casually flicked another mote of fire his way, and the blossom caught Tao before his invisible form could escape the vicinity.
"Ouch! Ouch! ARRRRRGH!"
Tao rolled onto the floor, trying to put out a localised blaze that had caught his hat and set fire to his collared tee-shirt.
Gwen's eyes grew wide, her mind rioted. She wanted to scream at her cousin, WHERE IS YOUR SHIELD?
"Where is his shield?!" Gwen asked Mina incredulously.
"He SUCKS at Abjuration, and he's lazy as fuck when it comes to training," Mina laboriously stated as if she'd had to explain the same thing a hundred times over. "Wait for it."
Sure enough, a Shield of air sprang into being half a second too late.
"Oh... Peaches," Gwen's eyes grew watery with sympathy.
Fredrick appeared too embarrassed even to attack the wretched, writhing form of Tao. It was supposed to be first to shield break, but how did that apply to a Mage with developmentally delayed Shields? If he had not suppressed the flames' heat, Tao could be making a trip to the local military ER.
Peaches' assailant turned to look at Dai Fung, who likewise had an expression that suggested he'd swallowed a fly or two by accident. Dai motioned quickly to Magus Yuu, the Adjudicator.
"VICTORY, to Young Master Lin of Huangshan!" Yuu announced quickly, ushering the white-clad team of skimpy nurses onto the stage. "Applause!"
Scattered applause filled the arena.
Compared to the first match, the second was blisteringly lacklustre. Instead of a feeling of excitement, the two-minute spectacle filled the patrons with a cringe-worthy sense of self-loathing, as though they'd just watched an angry widower beat his crying kid.
"I haven't lost yet!" Tao screamed as he was placed on a stretcher and taken to Mina, who promptly restored him with a Cure Moderate. His shirt and hat, however, was toast.
"It wasn't Shield-break yet," Tao protested groggily.
The "Winners" approached with smug expressions. Gwen needed no Divination to anticipate their subsequent encounter. She closed her eyes, counted to three, then opened them. Dai teleported beside her, standing above Tao with a gloating expression.
"Good match! You were almost going to win, but alas," he comforted them with sardonic sympathy. "Now, you looking to pay for Crystals or currency?"
"Dai, don't," Mina snapped at the young man. "You know we can pay. Give me a day or two."
It was unfortunate that even scrounging up all the crystals Tao's crew possessed, they were still missing thirty or so HDMs. Tao's friends might be affluent, but their families were strict. Likewise, Mina wasn't of any help because she was equally guilty of spending money like flowing water.
Dai mused, looking at Gwen with the suggestive grin of a two-bit crook. "Well then, cousin, shall we?"
Gwen sighed, rolling her eyes. After surviving Faceless, Elizabeth and Walken, their present foe's ploy felt like the jabbering of mewling children fighting over a favourite toy.
"Dai! You're starting to piss me off," Mina hissed at him, but Dai blissfully ignored her.
"And where are we going exactly?" Gwen questioned Dai, who seemed in love with the sound of his voice.
"Join me in the VIP, of course." Dai inclined his head, his eyes already eyeing her hungrily. "Give a man a bit of face, share a few drinks. All very innocent and fun."
"I am coming with you!" Despite his exhaustion, Tao's camaraderie, though headstrong and foolish, pleased Gwen greatly.
"You are not welcome." Dai shot Tao a grimace of disgust. "Go home, cherry-boy."
Tao's companions helped her cousin to his feet, but it was evident to Gwen they dared not speak up against the son of a Police Commissioner.
"Am I also unwelcome, then?" Mina replied between clenched teeth. Her eyes flashed dangerously, growing hard enough to entomb Dai on the spot. "Should I tell Uncle Fung about what you're trying to do? Maybe he can be a better judge!"
"What's with the angry flirting?" Gwen whispered to Tao, pulling his face closer to her own. As a woman of experience, Mina's and Dai's mutually indignant gaze brought to mind two individuals who unmistakably shared an intimate and sordid history.
"He's her Ex," Tao provided an unenterprising piece of the puzzle.
Gwen felt the components slotting into place like a final Tetris block. So Dai's interest wasn't just about Tao. It wasn't just about her, either. Gwen had suspected that Dai wasn't so stupid as to lose his cool over something as base as a chance to grope her buttocks. There was an element of revenge best-served-cold involved, and Dai was using her as leverage to dig deep into Mina's prideful flesh.
With the puzzle solved, now same the time for action. Abruptly, Gwen stood from her chair, forcing Dai to rest on his back foot.
Dai was a tall bloke, but with her well-heeled boots, they were the same height. Their eyes met, she smiled at him, then began to walk toward the VIP section, directly opposite their current position.
"Gwen, wait!" Mina stomped her food. "Tao! You IDIOT!"
Dai's grin split from ear to ear.
"Your cousin is a far more obedient girl than you," he teased Mina behind her. "But Mina— you can tag along if you like."
"You're such an er-bi..." Mina swore with a word Gwen's translation stone could not discern.
"Ha ha ha!" Dai turned to follow her. Gwen counted the steps, listening for Dai's leather-soled shoes until he was right behind her, then just as they reached the duelling floor, she stopped.
"What's wrong, Gwen—"
Dai's quizzical inquiry was interrupted when Gwen threw a hand casually into the air, the same invocation as her Flashbang.
Briefly, night turned into day. A discordant explosion of sound and light, charged with hair-raising static, lit up the club's interior.
The music ceased, as did the conversation.
Every eye in the room sought out the source of the disturbance.
They found it in a foreign girl standing centre stage upon the duelling field. A cascade of silvery Conjuration mana fell about her like blue-white fireflies.
"FREDERICK LIN!" Gwen shouted toward a bewildered young man in the VIP section of the club, surrounded by a plethora of eager girls who'd been lapping at his retelling of the duel.
Gwen raised a hand in the air before retrieving from her fingers an enchanted ring.
"I challenge you to a Bout! I will offer this Master Crafted Ring of Evasion, made by a Magister of the Tower, as ante!"
Gwen spun around the dance floor, allowing the others to behold her striking face and mana-enriched eyes.
The silken silence continued to reign.
"Of course, I could offer myself— but first, you'll have to win this ring..." Gwen smirked, teasing the crowd.
The club burst into wolf-whistles, cat-calls and jubilant shrieks of untempered delight.
Dai stared, no less confused than Frederick.
"A CHALLENGER HAS SPOKEN!" Magus Yuu leapt at the opportunity, entirely beside himself with excitement. Anyone observing his face would read him like a book. Here in the House of M, nubile challengers were precisely the sort of thing that got the young folk's blood boiling and the bets rolling.
Dai attempted to intervene, but the Magus blew past him. There are favours, but nothing will stop the House of M from making crystals.
"LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! I know you can't wait! I know I can't wait! But rules are rules! A challenge cannot be rescinded— of course, give us a moment while our challenger is registered and her betting prize verified!"
He turned to Frederick.
"Mr Lin, do you accept?"
Frederick looked to Dai for advice. Gwen watched their opponent nod with confidence and felt happy with sadism.
"A BRAVE and RECKLESS choice!" Magus Yuu announced to the world. "Youth lives but once! Win or lose. We applaud your bravery!"
"What makes you think I would lose?" Frederick taunted the announcer, eyeing Gwen as though seeing her for the first time. "Perhaps when this is all over, she and I will be spending some quality time by the VIP."
A round of boos addressed Frederick. There was a natural advantage enjoyed by those in possession of comeliness that was difficult to supersede by those who didn't win the genetic lottery.
A female attendant took Gwen's ring and had it inspected by a resident artificer. It wasn't uncommon for people to want to bet magical items when the heat of the moment fried their brains.
Meanwhile, a second attendant took a print of Gwen's Multi-Pass, which served as an ID recognised by the Shanghai Tower. As for why an Australian student was in Shanghai illicitly, that wasn't the M's business, whose only concern was unadulterated entertainment and the ceaseless generation of crystals and currency for its owners.
It took only a minute for a slip of paper to make it back to Magus Yuu.
"FIVE HUNDRED AND FORTY HDM CRYSTALS!" he screamed into the voice modulating incantation. "A TREMENDOUS confidence!"
He spun to face Frederick Lin with a toothy grin.
"Mr Lin, do you wish to proceed?"
All eyes turned to Frederick, whose face instantly paled.
It was clear the young man lacked the funds, but how could he say no, now of all times?
He looked to Dai desperately.
Dai approached the duelling floor and produced six crystal currency cards.
Frederick's face restored some of its previous confidence. However, he also grew contemplative, likely wondering who Gwen's Master might be and whether it was wise to give the man the piss by trying to bully his Apprentice.
If Gwen could hear Frederick's thoughts, she would have laughed.
It wasn't because of pride, family, nor honour that she was challenging him. Gwen knew well that he was duelling the poor bastard because she expected to fleece five hundred quid from his unresisting body.
"ALRIGHT! ALRIGHT! ALRIGHT!" Yuu's voice was almost going hoarse. "It is ON! My friends, clear the space! Challengers! Present yourselves!"
The interior lights flared, the exterior perimeter dimmed.
Gwen stood demurely on one side, a gentle, mirthful smile lightly touching her petal-pink lips.
Frederick stood opposite, still bewildered by the sudden turn of events.
The Magus requested a final confirmation.
Gwen nodded silently.
Frederick said nothing as well, but for an entirely different reason. Even from afar, Gwen could feel the motes of fire radiating off him. The Evoker was trying to front-load something big, likely a Fire Ball. She needed to finish this fast and clean. The less she showed, the more crystals she was likely to generate with her next con.
"ALLLLLLLRIGHT! On my signal…" Yuu Dimension Doored from the floor and onto the roof, landing with a flourish atop the rectangular Force Cage.
A crystalline shard materialised for a fraction of a second in front of Frederick's face before manifesting as a localised thunderclap.
Frederick hadn't even finished his spell before his world turned white with noise and illumination. The malformed chant in his mind became white noise as both the Flashbang and his mana fed back into his body.
Gwen, who knew mana burn better than anyone, could see the poor bastard's face blanch and therefore knew that the young man was entirely at her mercy, at least for another few seconds.
Leaping into her short-range teleport, Gwen barrelled into Frederick with her shoulder, appearing just centimetres beside Frederick's stunned body before crashing into his chest. A burst of electricity exploded where her Mana Shield impacted his instantly-erected Shield, after which Fredrick flew backwards.
Frederick desperately tried to fire off a spell that would give him even a second of breathing room.
Gwen lashed the air in front of her twice; twin tendrils of lightning lacerated Fredrick's Shield with such force as to send him kneeling against the wall of the Force Cage, furthermore engendering forth a shower of orange-yellow sparks where her electricity impacted the invisible barrier.
Caught by the momentum of her spell flurry, Gwen forwent even the first segment of her chants, simply using her Transmutation Sigil to keep the channel open, allowing the electrical energy to pour freely forth.
Her spells were weaker without her Evocation sigils empowering the damage. However, to the untrained eye, it seemed as though she was ceaselessly churning out an endless torrent of sorcery that was alternatively blades, tendrils, blasts of lightning, and other misshaped detonations of electricity.
Fredrick must have fainted at some point during the exchange, for Gwen noticed her discharges were singing his clothes and hair.
Quickly, she ceased her attack. She is here to win money, not cause a homicide. The fight felt good. She felt good.
And with 500 HDMs in her pockets, she would feel even better.
With comparative slowness, Frederick's smoking body slid off the conjured pane of force and comically knelt toward her, head over heels.
A hundred mouths opened and closed, trying to find words that could adequately describe what they had just witnessed.
A few keen observers wondered if her display was a part of some show, some illusion mayhaps, set up by the Magus Yuu to liven up the atmosphere after Tao's dismal duel.
It was as good as an explanation as any other.
After all, a girl, a junior by the looks of it, one that looked more like an idol than a combat Mage, just trounced the son of the Lin family, renowned for their Evocation Mages, with nothing but Quasi-Elementalist cantrips and a single Dimension Door?
How was it that she incanted her spells so fast?
How could it be that her low-level incantations had so much power? How many schools did she use just then? Most importantly, why had no one ever heard of her? No Master worth their salt would forget a junior of this calibre after even seeing her in action once.
Was she a secret disciple, finally let loose into the world? Who was her Magister Master? That was the most critical question of all. No one wanted to step on the toes of a Magister without carefully considering the consequences.
"Peaches…" Eric said softly. "I am in love."
"Peaches…" Little-Dog likewise intoned. "I am in love too."
"Peaches…" Mack-Daddy said after a moment of deliberation. "I am so scared I am at full mast."
"... same." Little Dog confessed. "I am sorry, Peaches."
As for Mina, she could wonder what other secrets Gwen was hiding from them.
"THE WINNER! Miss SONG!" Yuu's voice rang like clarion across the space of the club.
"Woohoo!" Tao screeched, completely beside himself, wild with joy. "Gwen!"
A second voice joined in.
Then the entire club was hooting and stomping.
The skimpy nurses made their rounds. Thankfully, the boy was fine. Gwen could see Frederick returned to consciousness after only a minute, but his body sustained so much Elemental damage that he had become completely numb and paralysed.
Magus Yuu approached Gwen with the prize of the Bout.
He had her Ring of Evasion on a small, red cushion, which he returned to her, and the currency cards in the other, which he presented to her.
Before the watching crowd, Gwen turned to where Dai and his friends sat in the VIP section, still overcome with disbelief.
"Mr Fung!" she walked towards him, her boots clicking on the illuminated floor, her dancer's figure followed by hundreds of pairs of eyes until she reached their booth.
She produced one of the cards— one with a 100 HDM denomination.
"Here's the money Peaches owes you," She said sweetly, her eyes full of sincerity. "Thanks for being a good sport."
Before Dai could respond, Gwen spun on her heels and strode back toward the centre of the dance floor.
Just as the young man sat, Gwen stopped as she had before, performing the exact come-hither twirl and filling Dai with a horrific premonition.
"Mr Fung! Another round?" Gwen held up her ring and the four hundred or so HDMs she had in both hands. "900 HDMS, winner takes all."
Magus Yuu was beside himself with joy. "Miss Song, you're our lucky star, our Goddess of currency! Also, you might not be familiar with this, but as you are the instigator of the Bout, the M offers you a 10% cut on all of the club's winnings. Though the exact amount cannot be tallied as of yet, I can assure you that your portion of the last match should total about 300 HDMs."
Gwen turned to Dai.
"Apologies!" she bowed. "1200 HDMS, winner takes all!"
Dai's face altered between fifty shades of red. He opened his mouth to speak, perhaps to refute her challenge, but again was interrupted.
"Bet!" Tao began chanting, joined by his friends.
The whole club joined in.
"BET! BET! BET! BET!"
The son of the Police Commissioner grew contemplative.
Dai' looked over at Mina, who was also staring at Gwen with undisguised disbelief.
"Well, Mister Fung?" Gwen teased the man with an innocent smile of expectation.
After what seemed like an eternity, the heir of the Fung Clan nodded. "Okay, but not me. My family won't allow it. Instead..."
"Lok," he said quietly into the darkness, where a skinny man in a grey suit stood silently with the appearance of a stone sentinel. "Can you take care of this?"
"As you wish. Shall I spare the girl?"
Her opponent nodded affirmatively to his guard. "Do what you must. We have to avenge this insult."
Lok emerged from the darkness and into the light of the duelling floor.
"Master Dai answers your challenge. I will be his representative," he said to the crowd emotionlessly with the same intonation of one calling out a takeout order.
A silent Message bloomed next to Gwen's ears, invisible to all.
"That's Lok Khun. He's a Burmese national but served under the PLA's foreign operatives teams. Dai always liked to boast that his bodyguard was very skilled when it comes to his duties."
"What are his abilities?" Gwen said audibly. She didn't care that Lok heard. After all, she was the challenger; she possessed the onus of accepting or refusing their representative.
"Enchantment & Abjuration, Earth element, though Dai said that he trained in Mind Magic. I've never seen him in action, so I can't help you there."
"Thanks, that's enough. I'll take care of it."
"Are you sure?" Mina paused, seemingly reaching a decision. "Don't push yourself too hard. If it comes to it, Tao and I have your back."
Gwen returned her gaze to Lok, who awaited her reply patiently.
"Don't do it!" someone called out from the crowd.
"Yeah! He's a Magus! The fight's a travesty! Unfair!"
"Go and fight yourself! Dai!"
Gwen's following words silenced the crowd at once.
"Alright, I accept."
Yuu was there before the crowd even reacted.
Magus Yuu erupted. "THERE YOU HAVE IT! Ladies and Gentlemen! Austere Mages! Annnnnnnother groundbreaking match! The spectacle of a Student in Training against a Seasoned Magus! Can experience beat talent? Or does Talent trump all! EGO is what the Bout is all about!"
"She's a student?" someone from the crowd demanded.
"The Challenger! Miss Gwen Song! From the Frontier of Australia! A Quasi-Elementalist! A teenage prodigy!"
"The defender! Magus Lok Khun, employed under the House of Fung! A renounced master of the Abjuration Arts!"
"Lightning versus Earth! A decisive advantage for the Magus Khun! Can Miss Song overcome the fundamental mismatch?! Make your bets! Who will the Goddess of Victory Embrace! Who will emerge as the penultimate victor of this night?!"
The Force Cage resumed its protective enclosure.
Lok Khun gazed upon Gwen with his dead fishes' eyes. There appeared a little bit of Edgar in the depth of the man's calm pupils to Gwen's mind, suggesting someone who used to bringing pain to others.
She glanced at the 1200 HDMs' worth of crystals and prizes on display. Dai didn't have enough on him to pay outright, which meant that he would owe her if she won the match. If she were to keep his shame private and their exchange in intimacy, it would further imply that he owed her a debt of gratitude. After all, Crystals were merely numbers— social capital was priceless.
She took a deep breath.
Around them, the jibbering crowd hedged their bets.
One cat down. This other one looked like a biter.