The glass-dome ferry traversed the Huangpu River, drawing rubbernecking passengers to the port and starboard to point out the landmarks.
Gwen listened to their conversations as the ferry meandered through the estuary of the yellow river. Around them, the steel and glass exterior of Shanghai's CBD slowly fell away to reveal red brick and sandstone, then finally the grey neutrality of moulded concrete.
Shanghai was a strange city, and she was a stranger in a strange land.
Gwen missed having a smartphone. She yearned for a Mage world version of Tripadvisor. The idea of walking through a city that was quite literally unknowable was a daunting affair, and Gwen wondered if she could purchase a mapped data slate marked with points of interest.
When after half an hour the rare sights of Shanghai’s wonders were exhausted, curious passengers returned to their seats and sought other ways of passing the time. From their position toward the aft, Gwen noticed the young Mages congregating.
The gender imbalance of the Magical population here veered toward the masculine. By the same measure, the majority of the gathered Mages were Han Chinese, with scant few having a Eurasian appearance that suggested the northern steppes; or having darker complexions that clued toward a South-East Asian heritage.
Amongst the juniors, Gwen could only spot half a dozen Europeans, including herself, who was a Eurocentric-looking smorgasbord of ethnicities, and Petra, who was a full-blooded Russian. Curiously, Gwen wondered where the Africans were, or if there were any Middle-Easterners in the city.
Beside them, Tao shared an earphone with his mates, looking wonderfully in sync in their matching Adidas.
Her subtle surveillance of their surroundings was interrupted by the appearance of a middle-aged man with the expression of a hawk.
“Captain Jun!” the older Caucasian hollered. “My goodness, it’s good to see you!”
“Halbert!” Jun stood and extended his hand.
As the two greeted one another, other Mages joined the semicircle.
Richard leaned in toward Gwen.
“That’s an unspoken decorum,” he whispered into her ear. “You shouldn't casually engage a superior unless spoken to. Wait for them to address you."
Gwen nodded, taking in the lesson to avoid a future faux pas of her own.
Jun greeted his guests, speaking to them with an informality that made them happy to be in his presence. Gwen caught snippets of conversation about a battle ‘up north’, as well as operations in the inner Three Gorges Region.
After a few minutes, Jun turned to his proteges and introduced them.
"Hello, Uncle Halbert." Mina waved to the appreciatively-smiling Magus.
"Sup." Tao made a sign with his fingers, which made the senior Magus furrow his brows.
'Uncle Halbert' then turned to Gwen and her company of three.
“New blood?” The Magus raised his brows inquisitively. “Two lasses and a lad. My word how mighty fine they look!”
“They ARE awfully aesthetic, aren’t they?” He rubbed his chin.
The senior Magus was right.
Gwen was an elfin vision of loveliness.
Richard was tall and handsome.
Petra smouldered with her bright eyes and voluptuous lips.
When had he picked up such a comely group? Jun chuckled. If looks could kill...
Gwen curtsied toward the Magus, Richard bowed formally, and Petra inclined her head.
“Don’t suppose you’ll let us in on their specs, hmm?” Halbert teased.
“Heh.” Jun’s eyes twinkled. “Fifty HDMs you’ll never guess.”
“Ho?” Halbert trained his eyes upon the young Mages. “Detect Magic!”
The mana of Divination illuminated Halbert's eyes. Gwen felt the Magus' gaze swab over her skin like a tingling breeze.
“Gwen is a Conjurer, Lightning Quasi-elemental, and something else I can’t quite discern, Evocation, perhaps?"
“Petra is an Enchanter. Mineral."
“Richard would be a Conjurer, Water, and a bit of Abjuration?"
"So, Roppongi?” Halbert grinned confidently.
“Very good,” he intoned jovially but didn't stop there. “After we drop off the kids, Roppongi at K-11. Tonight. Your tab.”
“Really? Hmm…” Halbert examined the trio again, wondering who he had failed to discern. “I am buying, I guess.”
Gwen felt immensely impressed by the man’s expert reading of Divination Magic. They were on a ferry full of young Mages leaking mana like no tomorrow, yet Halbert could pinpoint their powers with near unerring precision. Was this the experience of a master Diviner?
Behind the Mages seeking Jun's counsel were juniors who were likewise interested in speaking with Petra. Unfortunately, their Russian cousin secluded herself near a window and entertained herself with the captured Void Bolt.
Thus rebuffed, their guests instead approached Mina, who introduced Gwen and Richard. Like musical chairs, the group of interchanging youngsters made small talk about Spellcraft and their expectations of Hengsha, allowing the time to pass relatively painlessly.
Gwen stole a glance at her distant cousin, so intently withdrawn in her manipulation of the Cube. She just hoped that Petra didn’t accidentally blast a hole through the ferry and sink the lot of them.
* * *
Hengsha island didn’t exist before 1858.
For whatever reason the Chinese authorities had yet to discern, the island came into being on the evening of July, 18th, 1858, following a disturbance at the mouth of the Yellow River where it met the South China Sea. Of course, during this epoch, the Chinese Communists had not yet existed. Under Emperor Yizhu, the Qing Dynasty was haemorrhaging territory to the Mageocracy, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Rebels, and the Demi-human tribes of the steppes and the sea.
The island was first discovered by local fishermen, who reported its surfacing to the authorities, who sent a group of Daoshi, Chinese Mages of yore, onto the island.
Of the dozen sent, three returned, bringing with them tales of riches, veins of crystals, and monster carcasses both strange and unusual.
The ordinary folk had no idea what they faced, of course, but those in power knew that they had likely unearthed a pocket dimension carved out from some obtrusion of space and time, sent into the Material Plane by portent and chaos.
By the time the Qing Dynasty came and went, replaced by its new socialist rulers, the island had been all but forgotten. It was only after the unification of the country under Mao in 1949 that finally the interim government once again set foot upon Hengsha in 1958.
That was when they realised that the island was moving.
For a landmass created from shifting currents of sand and silica, it migrated about half a kilometre a year, always moving north, toward the satellite city of Chongming, a part of the great Shanghai Metropolitan expansion project.
Attempts to halt this drift seemed futile, for it appeared that the movement was beyond a matter of sealing its foundations, even if it would take another century for the island to reach landfall.
In the meantime, Hengsha proved itself a boon of treasures as a Special Resource Region, vomiting forth intermittent chunks of elementally charged crystals and exotic flora and fauna.
In balancing the risks and rewards, the Chinese authorities chose to let it be; for the alternative was to pulverise the island and seal its breach into the Astral Plane.
* * *
To Gwen’s eyes, the island was like any other. Forested near the centre, scattered beaches all around. Unlike oceanic islands, however, the sandy isle was surrounded by the silt-heavy waters of the yellow river, inundating its surroundings with flotsams of flora from the mainland.
A long pier had been carved out from the thickly overgrown sedge, allowing the passengers to depart from the river-faring ferry.
As the first passengers to embark, Gwen and her company were the last to alight, affording her a view of the island from the vantage of the four-tier ferry. In front of her eyes, Hengsha island stretched out invitingly, its distant green undergrowth like a dark-emerald maw.
Already there were about a hundred junior Mages and their guardians on the island, with a further two hundred odd arriving from the ferry.
“Looks like it’s about to start.” Jun moved forward eagerly. “Come on.”
The group followed Jun off the ramp until they reached the rendezvous site, where a dais had been set up by some Transmuters. Within the circular elevation was a Senior Mage attired in a tailored Italian suit, polished oxfords, and slicked grey hair. A proper silver fox.
Gwen’s group drew curious eyes as they entered the circle, where the ethnographic spread remained the same. Petra, especially, brought eyes toward them like a gravity well, causing Gwen to become self-conscious for the fact that Petra seemed entirely apathetic to the effect she had on others. When inevitably their attention shifted to Gwen, she found herself inclining her head incessantly like a hen to return their imploring, friendly gestures.
It took another half an hour for the gathering to settle, then the presiding Magister, Paris, began to speak.
“Seniors of the various Houses, noble guests, and young Mages, welcome to Hengsha Island. I am Magister Moreau Paris, the Tower Magister presiding over this Field Trial. In a few minutes, we will be declaring the objectives of this year's gathering of the Houses. If you do not wish to participate, speak to Magus Xi after the announcement.”
A round of polite applause greeted Magister Paris’ speech, who then motioned for the crowd to quieten down. A Mediterranian Continental, the Magister had a hard face with dark brown eyes. His slicked, platinum-blond locks further gave him the air of someone who was aloof and sanctimonious.
“First of all, the Pudong Tower thanks you for coming today. With me, are Magus Alison Xi and Magus Shu Jin Gwok from the PLA, who will be presiding over this trial.
Another round of applause followed. Louder this time.
Xi looked to be a diminutive Han woman in her forties. She had a distinctive scar across one eye that resembled a little centipede.
Gwok was a generic looking middle-aged Southern Chinese man without any particular features. Even his olive uniform, displaying the rank of Captain, felt nondescript.
“Allow me to announce the purpose of our gathering today,” Paris continued. “Every two years, the best and the brightest neophytes from the notable Houses are gathered to participate in a group event, giving young Mages a chance to use their talents and skills in the field, gathering Contribution Credits.”
“This year, we have a real treat for you young spell slingers. But where there are rewards, there are also dangers. For this year, Hengsha Island has once again accumulated enough mana to manifest the Dungeon!”
Upon hearing the D-word, Richard gripped Gwen’s wrist so violently that she could feel her bones creaking.
“Is he saying what I think he’s saying?” Gwen whispered carefully. “A Dungeon, here?”
“Yes!” Richard’s eyes were gleaming. “A Dungeon!”
Gwen turned back to Paris, who began extolling the dangers of Dungeon diving.
A Dungeon! Gwen tried to think back to textbooks the previous Gwen had studied. There were no Dungeons on the Frontier because they were built too far from the major junctions of tectonic ley-lines that empowered the tier 1 cities.
Even if one should appear in an Orange or Black Zone; it was still the duty of a Frontier Tower to share that information with their closest tier 1 city and offer up the lion's share of its loot.
But a Dungeon could be one of several things.
It could be a monster’s lair: from a goblins' warren several kilometres deep to the hidden den of a dragon containing precious crystals and rare minerals by the ton.
It could be a pocket-space, left behind from the primordial times, trapped in the volatile magical energies that allowed it to drift through the Ethereal Plane or the Astral, occasionally drawn to the Material Plane and manifesting serendipitously.
Likewise, a Dungeon could be a piece of the Elemental Planes that had burst through into the material, bringing with it unimaginable fortunes, elementally charged minerals, and even extra-planar beings.
Even Sufina’s Grot could be considered a Dungeon.
Whatever it may be, the important thing was that despite a Dungeon's apparent danger, it was full of precious materials and matchless treasures.
“… A scouting run has been carried out, reporting the danger rating of the Dungeon to be Orange, between tier 3 and 5, certainly nothing to fret over if you work together. The landscape is marshland, and the dispersion of creatures are medium. There are abundant sources of crystals, rare flora as well as old ruins for you to explore, though I shall say nothing more forthwith. For adventuring, therefore, you will form into teams of five...”
The crowd broke into clamorous murmurs.
What? Gwen looked around at the suddenly cacophonic crowd. No resting period? No 'meet and greet'? Just straight to the action?
Magister Paris' voice pierced through the volume of the babbling Mages.
“The entrance of the Dungeon will open at the forest’s edge in exactly two hours," Paris emphasised heavily. "If you wish to participate, proceed to register your team with Magus Xi and Gwok. As always, all gainful items and materials gathered from the Dungeon may be traded for Contribution Credits. The Divination corps has determined the length of the Dungeon to be seventy-two hours, after which you will be ejected onto the island. We will have Aerial Mages running pickup if you are injured, both within and outside the Dungeon. The rule for calling for assistance or forfeiture is as usual. If you choose to leave or must seek aid from an Adjudicator, your exit CCs will be halved.”
Paris halted his infodump for dramatic effect.
“On a more pleasant note, for the top three teams to return with the most valuable contributions, there will be additional CC rewards of 50 per person for first, 30 for the second, and 10 for third.”
An excited din radiated across the field. 50 CCs! The bonus for coming first was almost as much as the winning amount for previous competitions. Should a team return with 200 CCs worth of trinkets, precious flora, minerals and monster components, then they stood a chance of winning. If so, the winning team would likely gain 40 CCs plus another 50 CCs per person, enough to exchange for half a year’s worth of HDMs required for training. Or several spells at the tier 4 level, or a single tier 5 spell. Or several tutor session accompanied by a Senior Magus at a Tower.
“Well, you kids excited?” Jun grinned at the gathered members of the Song Clan, then despondently realised that technically speaking, only Gwen was a Song.
“I am raring to go, Sir.” Richard's face was rosy with adrenaline. “Got any advice? This is my first Dungeon dive, after all, I don't want anyone to get hurt.”
“Not my first,” Petra said casually.
“It's my first time,” Gwen confessed nervously. "I hope it's not going to be unexpectedly painful."
Tao sniggered. Mina slapped him.
“We’ve been to one before but…” She shot Tao a dirty.
“Well, no worries! We got a TEAM now!” Gwen placed her hand between them. “Come on!”
Richard followed through instantly and placed his hand on top of Gwen's. Petra joined unwittingly, sighing, then Tao, and finally Mina.
“Team Cousins!” Gwen intoned as she waited to break the huddle. “Pain heals. Chicks dig scars. GLORY.... LASTS FOREVER!"
Besides the huddle, Mack-Daddy and Little-Dog looked on gloomily.
Usually, they would be hangers-on paired with Tao. But now, they became the replacement. Then again, even if they felt a little maligned, the two wouldn't dream of asking Gwen or Petra to leave. It was too bad that this Richard prick refused to go. That handsome bastard can fuck right off.
As it stands, they would have to resign themselves to a pick-up group, a far more painful prospect. But as Gwen had just declared, she digs guys with scars, so maybe it could be worthwhile?
Meanwhile, Gwen's innocuous huddle seemed to have instilled a little spirit into the group, marking them as a part of ‘Team Cousins', sharing a collective identity.
Mack-Daddy and Little-Dog assured Tao that they were alright, and to look out for himself, then left their friend to find a PUG. At worst, the could always tag behind Tao's party once they were in the dungeon.
Unlike Gwen’s group which consisted entirely of family members, the rest of the Junior Mages became a chaotic jumble of shouts and moving bodies.
“Healer! I need a healer here! We’re good to go!”
“Abjurer? Is anyone a tier 3 Abjurer and above? We have two Evokers and Transmuters!”
“I am a tier 3 Cleric! Looking for a strong group to protect me!”
“I am the inheriting disciple of the Jukong Clan! Tier 4 Evoker, tier 2 Transmutation!”
“Oh! Please join us! We’ll look after you!”
“Need someone who can buff! Willing to trade 10% of all CC gained for a member that can buff Flight, Bark Skin, and Absorb Element!”
The scene was giving Gwen flashbacks to something in her old world that she was sure she had seen before.
It took an hour or so for the two hundred or so junior Mages to arrange themselves into groups of five.
By then, Gwen and her party had already registered with Magus Xi, who commended their efficiency. When Xi took Gwen’s card to imprint on her data-slate, she met Gwen's hazel eyes and gave her a knowing look of ‘Oh, so you're the one’. The PLA Magus also seemed to know Petra, for the two shared a quick exchange involving places and names foreign to Gwen.
Thankfully, Mack-Daddy and Little-Dog had found a party willing to take them, especially as Mack Daddy was supposedly a skilled Abjurer.
There were about thirty or so ‘leftovers’ who were then assembled by the organisers by force into well-balanced groups.
For Gwen’s party, they had all their bases covered.
They had Abjurers, Damage Dealers, a Healer and a Support; it was an excellent composition.
Petra allowed the Void Bolt Spell Cube to dance across her fingers.
“How strong is this thing?” she asked.
“One hit kills a soldier class,” Gwen said seriously. “Beware the vital drain though, I have an affinity, but for you…”
“I know, that’s why we got Mina here, right?” Petra smirked as Mina puffed her cheeks indignantly. “Keep us topped up.”
“Of course,” Mina replied with an annoyed expression. “I am no slouch like Peaches.”
“What do I do?” Tao scratched his head.
“Use illusion to disrupt monsters' teamwork,” Richard replied helpfully. “First observe how Gwen and I fight, then try to match our cadence. Play distraction, use fear when you can, create illusory walls if we run into a swarm, use Mirror Image on us if we run into a bruiser, got it?”
Tao nodded, hoping to God he wouldn't panic and forget what to do when it mattered; he was, after all, an artist before he was a Combat Mage.
“What happens if one of us gets injured mortally?” Gwen asked Mina.
“That’s not supposed to happen,” Mina pointed out. “Why do you think we have these compositions?”
“Let’s say we do…”
“Then you become a burden,” Petra interjected coldly. “This is a trial, Gwen Song. It is not a place to have fun. If and when Mages die in a Dungeon, think of it as being weeded out.”
“Still, what of those young masters and mistresses out there?” Gwen pointed a thumb at the crowd still trying to sort out their complementary skills.
“Who would want a useless disciple who cannot even survive a tier 5 Dungeon?” Petra pointed out poignantly. “What a waste of air.”
“Okay,” Gwen replied, feeling annoyed with Petra's irksome air of superior confidence. “What if we get into a scuffle, or say friendly fire? Or let's say someone’s after us, or that we’re after someone else? Can we attack the other Mages, even in self-defence?”
“That is a matter for the elders,” Petra stated flatly. “We need only to fight and survive. Even if it means fighting the other Mages. The inside of a Dungeon is a free-for-all.”
“Gwen.” Richard placed a hand on Gwen’s shoulders. “We’ll see what its like when we’re inside. You worry too much. I’ll protect us.”
“At any rate,” Mina interjected. “We all have contingency rings. Most of the clans have communal rings they lend out to disciples going out on potentially dangerous quests.”
“You do?” Gwen glanced at Mina’s hands. She had a full complement of rings.
“Mine teleports me back to the Wang Estate,” Mina said.
“I got one too,” Tao pointed out. "It's our dad's."
“I don’t have a ring, but-” Petra stated warmly. “My master has crafted me a Crystal Cube that has the same function.”
“Well, I am fucked,” Richard said disparagingly. He just had the one ring. The Storage Ring that Gwen gave him. “Guess I’ll just have to survive the old-fashioned way.”
The gathering turned to look at Gwen.
Gwen likewise, had a contingency ring, but she couldn’t tell them the truth; it was too absurd to recount.
How could she tell them that she was in possession of Gunther Shultz’s ring, one that allowed for single, live-saving teleportation virtually anywhere in the civilised world, taking her directly into an associated Tower? A ring contracted to guaranteed healing and protection from the powers that be? It made their localised contingency rings look like toys.
“It’s just you and me, Gwen.” Richard lied, kindly defusing Gwen's indecisive confession. “We gotta do it the hard way."
A thrum filled the air; the island beneath them shifted with a slight tremor.
The forest which had seemed so substantial and real only moments ago began to diffuse. A rolling fog poured from the woods, forming a smoky, swirling miasma.
“It’s here!” someone shouted jubilantly. “My CCs!”
“Be careful you don’t die a few hours into the Dungeon!” someone else quipped to the sound of jeering from his peers.
“You’ll protect me, right?” a female voice not far from Gwen announced adorably.
“Of course!” a masculine voice answered, causing a wave of disgusted groans to spread out amongst the young proteges.
Magister Paris' voice penetrated the din.
“Mages! You will enter the Dungeon in the order in which you registered. When I call out your number, proceed forward!”
"Guardians, we have portable habitats set up if you wish to remain on the island. Otherwise, you are free to return to your duties. We will contact you at first opportunity should an unforeseen circumstance arise. To reiterate, the Tower has Senior Mages on standby within the Dungeon should your wards desire assistance, likewise, allow me to stipulate that this will disqualify them from receiving half of all CCs attained.”
Paris watched the young Mages move into blocks of five, forming a line that led toward the fog, which even now was becoming as thick as a woollen blanket. Even from here, he could feel the leylines feeding the Dungeon.
“Contestants! Proceed! Move forward in an orderly fashion!”
Gwen felt her chest constrict as the groups began to move.
“Hold hands,” Petra suddenly announced as the fog loomed. “Sometimes, the spatial distortion of entering a different space can separate us. Stick close, but if you feel something pulling on you, let go.”
“Why let go?” Gwen inquired puzzlingly. “Wouldn’t it be better to try and stay as a group?”
“If you don’t let go, expect to bring someone’s arm with you,” Petra advised impatiently, wondering why her grand auntie had so much faith in two Frontier newbies who had never even been inside a low-tier Dungeon. Even if Gwen was a Void caster and this Richard was a Praetor from Prince’s, their inexperience with Dungeon Diving protocol made them liabilities. “Remember, the more violent the displacement, the further we’re likely to be taken apart from one another.”
“I got Flare spells,” Mina said helpfully. “Look for my glyph signature in the sky.”
“Assuming there’s a sky,” Petra added. “Though Paris did say it’s a marshland.”
“I’ll funk it up with some beats and a bitch’n projection so you can all come hollering!” Tao likewise volunteered.
Gwen couldn't help but imagine a twenty-foot projection of Tupac beckoning his teammates to join him, like that time they had resurrected the legendary rapper at Coachella.
"How likely are we to be separated?" Gwen inquired as they moved forward.
"Almost certainly, but the displacement ranges from a few metres to a kilometre at worst," Petra answered expertly. "More likely than not, at least two or three of us will stay together."
“Okay, here we go!” Richard felt the spatial suction of the fog-smothered entrance drawing him in. His voice quivered. His first Dungeon Dive, and it was with Gwen! Not only that, he could already begin to gather Contribution Credits. She was unquestionably his lucky star, his guiding north.
Gwen’s hand felt small and moist within his palm as the fog enveloped them.
He felt a sudden tug and a wrenching pain that shot up his forearm. The force that sought to separate them was immense!
Richard desired to hold on for dear life, but Petra’s contrary advice rang in his ears. He felt a moment of paralytic hesitation before Gwen made the call in his stead. Her dainty fingers squeezed his fleshy palm reassuringly, and then her hand was gone.