A note from Wutosama


With the susurration of sloshing water on either side of the ferry, the vessel meandered through the estuary of the yellow river. Around the passengers, the steel and glass exterior of Shanghai's CBD slowly fell away to reveal red brick and sandstone, then finally the verdant countryside.

When finally, after every one of Shanghai's wonders was exhausted, the curious passengers returned to their seats and sought other ways of passing the time. From their position near the aft, Gwen studied their congregation of sorcerers and sorceresses.

Different to Sydney, the gender imbalance of the Magical population in Shanghai veered toward the masculine. By the same measure, most of the gathered Mages were Han Chinese, with scant few having a Eurasian appearance; or having darker complexions that pointed toward a South-East Asian heritage.

Beside them, Tao shared an earphone with his mates, looking wonderfully in sync in their matching Adidas.

"Captain Jun!"

Her surveillance of their surroundings was interrupted by a middle-aged man's appearance with the expression of a hawk. An older, Caucasian Mage parted the crowd. "Goodness, it IS you! What luck!"

"Halbert!" Jun stood and extended his hand.

As the two greeted one another, other Mages joined the semicircle.

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 protègès and introduced them.

"Good morning, Magus Halbert." Mina waved to the appreciatively smiling Magus.

"Sup." Tao made a sign. "Yo!"

The senior Mage returned a polite smile, then turned toward Gwen and her company of three.

"New blood?" The Magus raised his brows inquisitively. "Two lasses and a lad. My word, how fine they look!"

Jun laughed.

"They ARE awfully aesthetic, aren't they?" Her uncle rubbed his chin. "Not that looks would help them in Hengsha. There are no replacements for skill. That's what counts in the end."

"Well said," Herbert agreed. "Still, it doesn't hurt to be easy on the eyes."

Gwen curtsied, Richard bowed formally, and Petra inclined her head.

"Don't suppose you'll let me take a gander at their specs?" Halbert teased.

"Ha!" 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. Trapped beneath the Magus' gaze, Gwen felt as though the man was swabbing her skin.

"Gwen is a Conjurer, Lightning Quasi-elemental, and something else I can't quite discern, Evocation, perhaps?" Herbert noted with care. "Petra is an Enchanter. Mineral, I am sure. And Richard would be a Conjurer, Water, with a bit of Abjuration?"

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?

Jun whistled. "Well done, but no cigar. It looks like you're buying, Herbert."

"Really? Hmm…" Halbert examined the trio again, wondering who he had failed to discern. "Alright, I trust you. Shall I congratulate the House of Song on acquiring such fortuitously talented descendants?"

"You may, and thank you," Jun laughed. "These kids are our future. Ain't that right, Gwen?"

"I'll do my best, Uncle."

"She's such a good girl," Jun sighed.

While the adults conversed, Magus Herbert's juniors sought counsel with Gwen and her group. A few went directly part Gwen and Richard and attempted to speak with Petra. Unfortunately, their Russian cousin secluded herself near a window and continued to entertain herself with the captured Void Bolt.

Thus rebuffed, their guests instead approached Mina, who introduced Gwen and Richard. The youngsters then made small talk about Spellcraft and their expectations of Hengsha, gifting Gwen the opportunity to pass the time until they disembarked without impatience.

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. Instead, under Emperor Yizhu, the late Qing Dynasty spent its final years haemorrhaging territory to the Mageocracy, the Taiping Rebels and the Demi-human tribes of the steppes and the sea.

The island was initially 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 monsters that feasted on human flesh.

The Emperor had no idea what he had discovered, of course, but the Sects all know that Hengsha was 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 became replaced by its new socialist rulers, the island had disappeared. It was only after the country's unification under Mao in 1949 that the interim government relocated the Astral tear that led to Hengsha.

Soon after that, China's new rulers discovered the island's pocket plane was moving. As a landmass created from shifting currents of silica, it migrated about half a kilometre a year, always moving north toward the satellite city of Chongming, a part of the Shanghai Metropolitan port project. Attempts to halt this drift seemed futile, for it appeared that the movement involves forces beyond Humanity's control. When the time came, Shanghai's government could disrupt and shunt the pocket plane but not control it.

In the meantime, Hengsha proved itself a boon of treasures as a Special Resource Region, vomiting forth intermittent chunks of HDMs, as well as exotic flora and fauna.

After balancing the risks and rewards, the Chinese authorities chose to let Hengsha be, for the "Dungeon" it provided could be very useful in training the city's junior Mages.

The island was flat and mundane to Gwen's eyes, with forests near the centre, scattered beaches all around, and mangroves by the edges. Its only peculiar feature was that 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.

Gwen and her company were the last to descend, affording her a view of the island from the four-tier ferry vantage.

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 some Transmuters had set up a dais. Within the circular elevation was a Senior Mage from Pudong Tower.

Gwen's group drew a great deal of attention as they entered the gathering. Petra especially may as well be a gravity well, making Gwen self-conscious for the fact that her cousin appeared entirely apathetic to the effect she had on others.

It took another half an hour for the gathering to settle, after which the presiding Magister, Moreau 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. As always, 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.

"First of all, the Pudong Tower thanks you for coming today. Next to me is Magus Alison Xi and Magus Shu Jin Gwok from the PLA, who will be my aides in judging 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.

Kwok was a generic-looking middle-aged Southern Chinese man without any distinguishing 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 young spell slingers. But where there are rewards, there are also dangers. For this year, Hengsha Island has once again become a full-fledged Dungeon!"

Upon hearing the D-word, Richard gripped Gwen's wrist with barely contained excitement.

"Is that right?" 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.

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.

However, Dungeons appearing on the Frontier were considered a calamity.

If one should appear in an Orange or Black Zone, it was the duty of a Frontier Tower to offer up the lion's share of its loot while sending some of its best men and women.

"… Initial orientation has deemed the Dungeon's danger rating to be Green to Orange, between tier 3 and 5, 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. For adventuring, therefore, you will form into teams of five..."

The crowd broke into clamorous contemplation.

Gwen looked around at the suddenly cacophonic crowd. That was quick! 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, register your team with Magus Xi and Kwok. As always, all items and materials gathered from the Dungeon count toward Contribution Credits. The Diviners have determined the Dungeon duration 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 the same as the international competition. If you choose to leave or must seek aid from an Adjudicator, your exit CCs will be halved."

Paris halted his infodump.

"On a more pleasant note, the top three teams will receive additional CC rewards of 50 per person for first, 30 for the second, and 10 for third."

An enthusiastic din radiated across the field. 50 CCs! Gwen smacked her lips in anticipation. According to the rules, 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 fourth tier or a single tier 5 spell. Or several tuition session accompanied by a Senior Magus at a Tower.

"Well, you kids excited?" Jun grinned at the gathered members of the Song Clan.

“I am raring to go, Sir.” Richard's face was rosy with adrenaline. "Got any advice? It's my first Dungeon dive. I don't want anyone to get hurt."

"Not my first," Petra said casually. "I'll be fine."

"It's my first time," Gwen confessed nervously. "Fingers cross, it won't hurt too much."

Tao sniggered. Mina slapped him, then shot Tao a dirty. "You're one to speak, Peaches, the last time you were in one..."

Tao groaned.

"Well, no worries! We got a TEAM now!" Gwen placed her hand between them. "Come on, cousins!"

Richard followed through by placing his hand on top of Gwen's. Mina joined unwittingly, sighing, then Tao, and finally Petra.

"Team Cousins!" Gwen intoned as she waited to break the huddle. "Pain heals. CCs— LASTS FOREVER!"

Besides the huddle, Mack-Daddy and Little-Dog looked on gloomily.

"Sorry, guys..." Gwen could offer the boys her best smile.

Usually, they would pair with Tao. But now, they wouldn't dream of asking Gwen or Petra to leave. As it stands, they would have to resign themselves to a pickup group, a far more painful prospect. Besides, as Gwen had just declared, Team Cousins was forever.

Mack-Daddy and Little-Dog assured Tao that they were alright, and to look out for Gwen, then left their friend to find a pickup group. At worst, they 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! No Abjurer, no go!"
"I am the inheriting disciple of the Jurong Clan! Tier 4 Evoker, tier 2 Transmutation!"
"Need someone who can buff! Willing to trade 10% of all CC gained for a member that can buff Bark Skin and Absorb Element!"

It took an hour or so for the two hundred or so junior Mages to arrange themselves into parties 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 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 before processing her form.

Thankfully, Mack-Daddy and Little-Dog had found a party willing to take them, especially as Mack Daddy was supposedly a skilled Abjurer.

About thirty or so 'leftovers' 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 once more rolled the Void Bolt Spell Cube across her palm.

"How strong is this thing?" she asked.

"One hit can kill a Soldier class monster or a tier 2 - 3 beast," Gwen said seriously. "Beware the vital drain though, I have ways to mitigate the effects, but for you…"

"I know, that's why we got Mina here, right?" Petra smirked as Mina puffed her cheeks indignantly. "She'll keep us topped up."

"Of course," Mina replied with a prideful expression. "I am no slouch like Peaches."

"What should 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 decoy Greater Images if we run into a swarm, and use Mirror Image on us if we run into a bruiser, got it?"

Tao nodded, his expression taking on a look of seriousness.

"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 remarked poignantly. "What a waste of air."

"Okay," Gwen replied, growing 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 adjudicators," 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 it's like when we're inside. You worry too much. I'll protect us."

"At any rate," Mina interjected. "We all have Contingency Rings. Likewise, most of the Clans have 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 flashed his digits. "Dad bought us all insurance."

"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 party turned to look at Gwen.

Gwen also had a Contingency Ring. But how could she tell them that she owned 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? Or that it was contracted to guaranteed healing and protection? Her unique item made their localised Contingency Rings look like toys.

"I have a ring..." Gwen confessed.

Thankfully, a sudden thrum interrupted their exchange, after which 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!" his peers jeered.
"You'll protect me, right?" a female voice not far from Gwen announced adorably.
"Of course!" a masculine voice answered, causing more jeering.

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 and parents, 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 the 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 the dangers here are real, and injury is inevitable. If you cannot agree to that, refrain from participation."

Gwen 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, she could feel the ley-lines and their unstable mana flux.

"Contestants! Proceed! Move forward in an orderly fashion!"

Gwen's chest constricted 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, likely wondering why her grand auntie had so much faith in two Frontier newbies who had never even been inside a low-tier Dungeon. "Remember, the more violent the displacement, the further we're likely to be taken apart from one another."

"I prepared 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 Chinese Tupac beckoning his teammates to join him.

"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's voice quivered. "My first Dungeon Dive with Gwen! You're my lucky star, Cousin!"

Gwen's hand felt small and moist within her cousin's palm as the fog enveloped them.

There was a sudden tug, then a wrenching pain that shot up her forearm. The force that sought to separate them was immense.

Gwen desired to hold on for dear life, but Petra's contrary advice rang in her ears. She felt a moment of paralytic hesitation before Richard made the call in her stead. His rigid fingers squeezed her fleshy palm reassuringly, and then his hand was gone.


A note from Wutosama

Chapter Ref :: 

Volume 1 Amazon (US) the book is in all markets as well.
Volume 2 Amazon (US) the book is in all markets as well.
V1 Google Play, iBook, Kobo, Nook and Playster Link
V2 Google Play, iBook, Kobo, Nook and Playster Link

Paper back in near future


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

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