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A note from Wutosama

 

Once again, the world became an indistinct bank of fog.

As the Dungeon-dimension closed around her, Gwen felt the physical world manifest in a swirl of volatile mana.

Immediately she checked her surroundings. Thankfully, she wasn't alone, for there were hundreds like her, standing around with mixed expressions of joy and anxiety, despair and triumph.

"Gwen!" Richard's voice cried out from the mass of bobbing heads.

"Richard!" Gwen waved back.

"Fam! Over here!" Tao's greeting was like a loudhailer.

"Everyone! You're all here!" Mina skipped through the crowd and joined their side.

"Me too..." Petra's discretion was a waste of effort; with her height and dashing figure, she was the most conspicuous of them all.

Contrary to Richard's worst predictions, the party gathered without incident and made their way towards the staging area, just south of the lowland clearing. When they entered the half-moon seating zone, groups who had arrived early were already having their loot measured and calculated for CCs.

Gwen's group made for one of the temporary platforms, where a familiar face awaited them.

"Adjudicator Hao!" Richard greeted the old Mage, who scowled as soon as he saw them.

"Oh, it's you. Well, I am glad to see you survived. I heard that you took down the elder Gila? Impressive work." Hao's mood improved as he spoke. "Well, let's see your ill-gotten gains."

"You jest, Sir!" Richard shared the Adjudicator's mirth. He bowed slightly, and the others followed his lead. "At any rate, Magus Hao, I am thinking you're going to need a bigger table!"

Hovering above the central dais floated an illusionary projection ten meters high. Upon it displayed the current top score for groups returning with their CC converted loot. By the time Gwen and her group accosted Hao, the count was already an impressive 191 CCs.

"A man of supreme confidence!" Hao rubbed his hands. He produced a slate in one hand and motioned to his assistants. "Let us begin!"

"Gwen?" Richard gestured for Gwen to proceed with unveiling their ill-gotten booty. More than half of the loot in her Ring had been at one stage someone else's hard-won CCs.

"Gwen commanded, so giddy with the prospect of overwhelming victory that she unconsciously vocalised the incantation.

A crash of cascading minerals covered the table. Watching the crystals overflow the surface, Gwen couldn't help but think of the bags of litter her cats perused. Both unwashed and stinking of the swamp, their stony loot smelled strongly of ammonium.

"Ho! Very nice. Elementally tainted crystals. Good for making magical items." Hao recorded the amount as his assistants sorted and weighed the stones. When the final stone moved into their irrespectively colourised pile, Hao rolled a hand over the multi-coloured mounds and stowed them away.

"80 CCs."

Next came a loose collection of strange flora— a few mushrooms and a few fruits of mysterious origin that they could not identify.

"Hmm, Swamp Jezebel. Three Strangle Vine Hearts. Two Crystallised Hartcry. A bushel of Vitae Grass. All up 59, I'll throw one in for the exemplar specimen of grass. Add 60 CCs."

The CC scoreboard now had a total of 202 CCs.

Feeling her palpable heart-rate beat against her chest, Gwen pumped mana through her conduits and produced the twin Gila Cores.

"Woa, lucky you! Two cores! Adult sized, very nice." Hao nodded appreciatively. "That's 30 CC each."

"Red Stars! Look at the Score Board!"

The party's attention turned to the central dais, where a group of haughty-looking young Mages in identical uniforms stood presenting a human-sized crystal block to Magister Paris. The citrine chunk of crystalline rock was enormous, taking two strength-enhanced Mages to hold it steady.

"The Dungeon Core!" an indistinct opinion identified the item. "So that's why the Dungeon closed prematurely!"

"For real?" Richard turned to Petra. "I thought they were a myth? At least, no one is supposed to be able to find it."

"They exist," Petra affirmed with a curl of her lower lips. "The core is found deep in the Dungeon, generally far underground, making discovery entirely accidental. To try to pry into so much space is impossible without expending a disproportionate amount of resources."

"Still," Mina added, her expectant expression becoming dejected. "They found it. I wonder what kind of a Guardian they had to defeat? How many CCs it's worth? Those cores can be made into Shielding Crystals or even enchanted to become Pocket Worlds. That Portable Habitat you got, Gwen? It's constructed from a chunk of this thing."

"Oh?" Gwen felt repressed by this other group's luck. "How the hell did they find such a thing?"

"Oh, you didn't hear?" said a junior Mage beside them who'd been listening to the girl's conversation. "They found it in a giant underground labyrinth flooded with water. Supposedly the guardian was absent, so they just nabbed it and legged it."

"Absent guardian, huh?" Richard manifested Lea. Her appearance was itself a source of envy for the Mages around them. A beautiful, humanoid Familiar was an incredible boon, especially a sapient one. "Lea, did you see a core while you're down there?"

Lea shook her head. Gwen read the body language as maybe she saw, or mayhap she had not. Even though Lea was self-aware, the Undine was more so a creature of passion and feeling than critical thought and introspection. If Richard had not known that a Dungeon Core existed below, Lea could not have known either.

"Don't worry about it." Richard petted his Familiar. He repressed a sigh. "It hardly mattered now— it's our fault for not knowing that a Guardian's nest could potentially hold a Dungeon Core. That's why it's important to study, kids."

Beside him, Petra felt sick with self-loathing as well. The thought that a core was down there hadn't even crossed her mind.

The party regarded one another and waited for the guillotine to fall.

"Maybe we can still win?" Gwen tried to be optimistic, but her naivety was crushed by a sudden cheer that grew from the riotous multitude of young Mages.

"400CCs!" someone shouted. "By Mao! They're going to win for sure! And they're going to get 50CC for coming first! Red Stars! 450 CCs!"

"Jesus." Richard sucked in his breath. "What are we sitting at?"

"You got anything else?" Hao patted the empty table. "Come on; you looted more than that!"

"Gwen?" Richard's voice wavered. The idea of losing to something as unfortunate as bad luck turned his stomach.

Heart in mouth, Gwen moved her hand over the table once more.

THUNK!

The core of the giant Gila fell onto the table and chipped the granite surface.

"Cao!" Hao swore, taken aback by the size of the thing. "You did kill the guardian! You guys found a core after killing a single elder Gila? I don't know what to say. Lucky? Unlucky? That's too pitiful. You could have gotten the Creature Core and the Dungeon Core and made record history!"

"Yeah, well," Richard lamented, glancing at the crew lording over their Dungeon Core. "You win some; you lose some."

"What's it worth?" Gwen asked. "We did it with an eleven-man team."

"Ah." Hao shook his head. "A damn shame then. I am afraid it has to be an even split unless you can convince the other team to forfeit their CCs."

"No, that's fine." Gwen battered her hand back and forth. It was one thing to come second, another to stab your allies in the back. She'd hate to imagine what Richard would think if she demanded that the House of Xu forgo their rightful reward. Would he lose faith in her judgement? There was also Fei; Gwen didn't want to take away the boy's CCs for the young Illusionist was only going to exit the Dungeon with 10-15 at most.

"Well." Hao rubbed his chin. "I'll try to be as generous as I can. I'll award 220 CCs. The guardian's core is a rare find, and I know of a few Magisters who would love to experiment with a Chaos core of this calibre."

"Okay," Richard tried to calculate their gains.

"We have 300 CCs." Gwen did the math for him. She glanced longingly at the Dungeon Core, feeling a little discouraged.

"That'll put you in a safe second or third," Hao intoned. "A shame, but it is an excellent show for your first dive. Congratulations."

"The egg?" Mina suggested.

"How about this egg?" Gwen materialised a Gila Egg held in the stasis of a crystalline Spell Cube.

"Hmm…" Adjudicator Hao rubbed his grizzled chin. "A rare ingredient, but of insufficient versatility in experimentation. At the very best, I can award you 20."

"That puts us at 320…" Mina sighed.

Gwen glanced at the scoreboard.

Should she ask the party to give up some of their Vitae Fruits? How much were they worth? One was for Babulya. One was for Petra's master. One belonged to Richard. Should she sacrifice the chance to grow Almudj's primal mana for some CCs?

She could always participate in more Dungeon dives, but the opportunity to grow her resistance to Void consumption was a far rarer benefit.

"Wait!" Tao interjected. "Gwen, didn't you say Caliban murdered its way through the marsh?"

Tao's unfortunate choice of vernacular struck a wrong cord in Gwen's heart.

"His belly!" Tao indicated bewilderingly. "Cali be spewing dem that cores like taking a big dump, right? Doesn't he have more inside? Maybe there are more cores inside like that time Bubbles shat out Mina's earrings?"

Mina's face became deathly pale. "The pearl earring? My favourites? The ones you said I must have lost at the club?"

"I ain't saying shit, dawg." Tao tried to pivot the topic. "Caliban be shitting treasure any minute now."

"Tao!" Mina took her brother by the scruff of the neck. "What the fuck did your dog do?"

Richard turned back to Gwen.

"Well?"

"I could try." Gwen turned her mind inwards. "Caliban, you got more of these cores in you?"

"Shaa!" Caliban replied, implying that it could shit out a modest collection, should it wished to do so.

"Okay, come out discretely."

Gwen turned to Tao and the others.

"Peaches, Richard, give me some cover. I don't want a spectacle, at least not yet."

"You got it!" Tao gave her a thumbs up and began a Major Image.

Their immediate surroundings became reflective and difficult to discern. Richard likewise reinforced the illusion with a water-screen. With both physical and magical warding in place, Gwen called her Familiar.

An obsidian serpent resembling a work of grotesquely erotic art slithered onto the table. Hao had seen the creature prior, but the details provided by proximity still made him repress his revulsion. His assistants likewise stepped back with abrupt aversion lest they drew the ire of the netherworld fiend.

Caliban cocked its lamprey's mouth.

"Hideous!" Their Adjudicator gave his most honest reply.

"SHAA—Bluuuuggh!"

A torrent of grey goo in a volume impossible for Caliban's slim body to possess poured onto the table. Captured within the mucus, much in the manner of frog spawn, were-creature cores that cascaded over the counter like tidal water. There were stones both large and small, the most potent of which was the size of a hen's egg, the finest of which was the breadth of a fingernail.

The torrent of horrendous nether-liquid continued until Caliban began to dry heave.

"Cali, go home!" Gwen commanded.

The party breathed a sigh of relief as their resident nightmare fuel retreated. Now there was only the matter of the semi-digested cores. The party had stood well away from the table, but Hao would need new robes.

Tao and Richard dispelled their illusion and Shield.

"Well? Gwen gulped. "Is that enough?"


To the Mages who had been curious about the deliberate obfuscation, it was as though a small mountain of Creature Cores had materialised from thin air.

"R-Red stars!"
"WHOA! WHERE THAT COME FROM?"
A riot erupted where the party stood, ankle-deep in mysterious slime.

"Those ain't crystals!" someone shouted incredulously. "They're CORES!"

"AEEEEE! Hundreds of cores!" A female voice pierced the already bothersome ding.

Adjudicator Hao plucked a core from the grey goo.

"Swarm cores, five to 1 CC. Tiny Cores— 1 CC each. Small Cores— 2 CCs Each! Medium Cores— 5CCs," he commanded his assistants, who were trying to hold their guts in. "Begin!"

Meanwhile, upon the central dais, more crystals and assorted flora became exchanged.

"Total: 423 CCS!" Magister Paris announced, triumphant over the Dungeon Core group's surprising windfall.

But the Magister's attention was soon drawn by the commotion coming from the lower sector, where a few hundred Mages were chanting and chittering while surrounding one of the sorting tables.

"Hao, how goes your group?" Paris felt confused by the excitement. What would be more alluring than a Dungeon Core? Who could collect enough bric-a-brac to exceed a lump sum of 400 CCs? "What's your count?"

"In a minute! I am going as fast as I can!" Hao Messaged back. "Get ready!"

Magus Xi and Gwok likewise approached the goo-covered table where Hao picked out core after core.

Thus far, the top score was 423 CCs, the second being 212 CCs.

"Where in the world did you find so many cores? How many creatures did you kill?" Xi's scar was glowing crimson with excitement. It had been some time before she'd seen such a bloodthirsty group. If these young Acolytes could channel that passion into the real world, they would make excellent Combat Mages, maybe in the Hunter-Killer divisions or serving as elite Mage Flights. "Awe-inspiring work, neophytes!"

Their eyes fell over Gwen, Petra, and Richard. Richard was the first to bow, followed by his companions. Gwen was the last to genuflect, for she was caught in the intricate calculations carried out by Hao and the assistants.

"Tao and Mina Wang?" Xi turned to her colleague, feeling a little bewildered. "I thought they were the young masters of the Wang Enterprise."

Gwok felt likewise surprised by the composition of Gwen's party.

"He scored zero CCs last dive," The Mage added.

The two Magus turned toward the party and patiently observed Hao's painstaking work.

"Peaches!" a voice called out from behind the group.

"Mack-Daddy! Little-Dog! Yo-yo, wassup!" Tao hollered back. As the two met with the party, Tao exchanged a blisteringly fast array of hand signals and gang signs with his two brothers from another mother. "Oh shit, man! You guys won't believe what happened! I almost like, died! We capped some bitches, busted up some Gila, it was nasty as anything, dawg."

"Yeah— That's Tao Wang." Xi scratched her scar in disbelief.

"Stranger things have walked the Prime Material." Gwok shrugged, equally bewildered.

"ALRIGHT!" Hao finished, his voice triumphant. He had never seen such a thing before in all his years. "Assorted Chaos Cores from Gila creatures, 133 CCs!"

"YES!" Gwen punched the air, her eyes glowing with concentric rings of cobalt blue.

"That puts you at-" Hao announced.

"That puts us at 453 CCs!" Gwen yelled. She liked winning. She enjoyed winning very-very much.

"OH shit! No Way!" Tao freaked out, hugging his two friends.

"Eeeek!" Mina shrieked, mimicking Ariel.

Petra breathed out. "I am glad."

"Fuck yes!" Richard raised a hand. "Give it to me! Team cousins!"
"Tao!"
"Mina!"
"Petra!"
"Gwen!"

Their hands met in a series of resounding high-fives.

"Everyone!" Gwen left Richard's arms and pulled the others in to form a huddle. "Team Cousins!"

"I can't believe you guys did it!" Mack-Daddy and Little-Dog exalted the jubilant Tao.

"Peaches in the house!" Tao began a beat-box with Mack and Dog.

The crowd around them applauded as well, breathing in the celebratory air. With Hao making the announcement official, Magister Paris left the dais and flew over the clamorous youth toward the group, happy that such potential had emerged from a low-tier Dungeon.

A dozen more Dungeons like this, the Magister sighed, and Pudong would have a whole new generation of Magisters.

"503 CCs, including the reward for coming first!" Gwen rejoiced. "Split five-way, that's a hundred CCs each!"

"Congratulations!" the booming voice of Magister Paris rolled across the clearing. The Magister's eyes surveyed the masses of congregating Mages, young and old. No other group raised their hands to contest the score, which was fair, seeing that Gwen's party had produced the guardian's core.

Watching Paris float through the air on a spell of flight, Gwen could only lick her lips in envy at the ability to fly.

As the Magister landed amongst them, the party paid their respects.

"You're Captain Song's group, no?" Magister Paris clasped his hands together. "My word! What fortuitous encounters you must have had! You have gathered enough materials and Cores to rival five adventuring parties!"

"We happened to be in a good spot, Sir," Richard replied modestly. "Gwen's the one who did the most legwork. She's our primary damage dealer."

"Indeed, a girl of many talents." Magister Paris turned his eyes upon Gwen, who looked modestly taken by Richard's shameless plug.

"Richard is far too kind." Gwen moved a hand toward her companions. "I couldn't have done it without the others. I doubt we would have even held onto our items if Richard hadn't saved me. Or become too injured to continue were it not for Mina. Petra too rescued me from forfeiture on more than one occasion, and Tao was likewise instrumental in our defeat of the elder Gila."

Paris nodded with satisfaction.

"Excellent, Ms Song. We need Mages who are more aware of teamwork and less obsessed with their standing," he spoke appreciatively. "I look forward to your future performance and that of your team. Your student cards, please."

Gwen and the others produced their cards.

"By the power invested in me by the Two Towers, I now award you 91 and an additional 50 CC—"

"HALT!"

All who heard the command felt shocked by the upstart interjection, none more so than Magister Paris, whose face instantly grew cloudy with subdued rage. Who would dare interrupt him during an announcement? He was one of the Twelve Chairs of Pudong Tower!

Three hundred odd pairs of eyes turned to see a group of Mages penetrate the crowd of juniors to reach Gwen and her company.

"Well, shit." Richard's smile grew rigid. "It's the Clan of Xiao."

There was the familiar face of Huyi Xiao in the congregation, as well as his aggrieved party. Their assembly was lead by an elder radiating a palpable aura of power.

With a cold expression of loathing, Magister Paris turned to Gwen and her company.

"I am afraid I can't intervene if this is a private matter," Paris announced with annoyance. "Be very careful when dealing with Chinese Clanners. Their roots are deep and intertwining. They even have connections with the Chinese Communist Party."

The PLA Tower gave its two cents as well.

"By that same measure, we can't meditate if you're not a part of the CCP," Magus Xi added with annoyance. Besides the Magus, Gwok affirmed Xi's claim. "But we'll make sure they don't do anything drastic. More than likely, they're here to get their 'face' back."

By now, the oppositional party had reached Gwen and her group.

"I am Elder Xiao Leung Tian of the Clan of Xiao," the leading Mage announced. The Magister looked to be in his forties. Were it not for his westernised attire; he would have entirely resembled a picture-perfect Daoshi.

They dipped their heads before Paris, who returned their greeting.
Gwen and her party had to bow. There was a place for blood and robbery, but it was manners and etiquette that produced civilisation.

"You have tortured and robbed our inheriting disciple, Huyi," Leung Tian proclaimed. It was not a question but a statement of fact. "Your illicit act has forced him to quit the competition. We demand compensation."

Gwen's group fell into nervous silence. They could show a Vid-cast of Huyi's shame, but that seemed like it would immediately make matters worse.

"You will forfeit." Leung Tian continued. Behind the wizened Elder, Huyi's eyes licked over Gwen and Petra hungrily, delighting in every word spoken by his Clan's Magister-tier Mage. Watching the girls squirm with indecision made his face all the more sadistic.

"And if we don't?" Gwen felt an inexplicable calm overcoming her initially nervous anticipation. She was the sort that grew colder and calmer with increased opposition.

"You shall return what you did to Huyi's team ten-fold, right here," the Xiao Elder stated arrogantly. The aura of distorted, indiscernible power surrounding the Mage suggested he could indeed carry it out without significant effort.

"Tian, spare me some face," Magister Paris attempted to intervene, likely for the sake of his reputation. "This is a children's competition. Don't you think that it's shameful for you to get involved?"

"These are no children," Leung Tian spat. "They're foreign devils, imperialists. They have no morality. You should have heard of what this Richard and this Gwen Song did. Who can defend that?"

Her face grew instantly scarlet. Gwen wanted to shriek and scream and kick the old dog between the legs. The hypocrisy! She ought to let loose Caliban in the man's face! Most importantly, they were a second away from receiving their CCs! That's it! She was done! She was going to have WORDS with the old dog!

"Gwen..." Mina tugged at Gwen's sleeve.

"W-what is it?" Gwen was visibly panting with the effort of keeping her simmering resentment from overflowing.

Mina pointed into the crowd with her eyes.

A familiar face was grinning at them.

"Uncle Jun?" Gwen blinked. Had he been here all along?

"Care if I come in?" Jun announced himself. The crowd parted as the Magi Moses had parted the Red Sea.

"Captain Jun," Leung Tian Xiao's voice took on a tone of caution.

Jun walked beside Gwen's group after greeting Paris amiably. Around them, the chittering assemblage fell silent. Most of them knew of Captain Jun Song and his reputation.

"My niece." Jun pointed to Gwen. "A lovely sight, no?"

The crowd made an "Aaaaah—"

"My other niece." Jun patted Petra's shoulder. "A distant relative, but family nonetheless, not to mention I owe him one."

Jun then shook Richard's hand. "Thanks for looking out for the girls."

"It was my duty and my pleasure, Sir," Richard thanked his distant uncle.

"The Clan of Song thinks too highly of itself." The Xiao Elder's brows knitted as he warned Jun. "Do you believe a Clan as illustrious as ours is going to fear the MSS? You're just the CCP's dogs. What would the Communist Party think if you bite the hands that fed its coffers?"

Jun appeared entirely unfazed by the insult.

"I am waiting." He stood casually. His handsome mien was impassive. "Don't worry. We got time."

"Waiting?" Leung Tian scanned the horizon. "For what?"

"For you to try something. Go on." Jun's eyes were full of mirthful mockery.

"You!" Leung Tian felt his patience crumble. "Insolence!"

"Magister Paris is a busy man." Jun sighed. He spread his arms helplessly. "As am I. So, you know. Get on with it."

His message was self-evident for all whose eyes turned toward them. Jun was telling the Clan of Xiao to either shit or get off the can. But how could the Clan of Xiao forfeit now? They were the ones who began this altercation. How could they afford to lose more face? It would be like being spat on in public.

An eerie silence descended amongst the audience and between the two parties.

"You don't dare attack us." Leung Tian retorted after what seemed like a minute.

"A man is entitled to self-defence, no?" Jun turned to Paris, who had a grin split from ear to ear, enjoying the show. "I can do that much, right?"

"By article 13, clause 3.4 of the Tower's Governance Article concerning the Public Use of Magic, Captain Song is indeed entitled to a lawful self-defence," Magus Xi added her piece. "Captain Song, I am your witness."

"So am I." Magus Gwok threw in his lot as well. Gwen was not surprised. Compared to these Clanners, Jun must be a CCP darling.

Leung Tian seemed torn between heaven and earth as his well-waxed beard quivered with indecision.

"How about this?" Jun announced, still amused by the whole thing. "We can have an old-fashioned, friendly 5v5. If our kids win, you forgive and forget. If we lose, our team forfeits all their CCs."

The proposal was fair. Leung Tian turned to see what the young Mages of his Clan thought of the offer.

Gwen followed Leung Tian's eyes as he turned to regard his scions. Then she saw his expression sink like a millstone thrown into a lake.

Huyi's face was as white as milled flour. The others behind him had equally browbeaten expressions. One of the Mages, the Diviner, was visibly shaking with fright.

The Xiao Magister then turned to look at Gwen and her troop of junior Mages.

Besides her, Richard looked more amused than anything else at the prospect of a 5v5. Petra appeared to take the news with complete indifference. Tao and Mina at least wore humble expressions of mild worry. As for Gwen herself, she could only describe her present condition as bloodthirsty.

The juxtaposition made the outcome of the contest self-evident.

After his moment of unwelcome clarity, Leung Tian seemed as though he'd aged a decade.

He turned to regard her uncle, still untouched by the events. Instead, Jun appeared sympathetic for the Elder of the Xiao Clan. In a way, Gwen felt for the Elder as well. The man himself must have gone through some serious history, such as the Communist Revolution, then the Sino War with Japan, then the Beast Tide. Now, in this time of prosperity, these losers were all his Clan could produce? These arrogant ingrates?

The tense atmosphere appeared to deflate.

"I withdraw my statement." Leung Tian turned to Jun. "We wish no further conflict with the House of Song, nor against the Ash Bringer himself."

The Ash Bringer? Gwen looked at Jun's broad, sculpted back. What an ominous title. Was Jun a Fire Mage like Alesia?

Jun extended a hand, then after a moment of hesitation, Leung Tian shook it.

"Our Patriarch will personally issue an acknowledgement to Patriarch Xiao." Jun firmly clasped the Magister's hands. "I hope you don't mind if we pay the estate a visit, together with humble gifts."

"The gift of peace would be more than sufficient." Elder Xiao separated from Jun. "Though you are welcome anytime, I would have you know that the generosity of the Xiao is well-founded. Your nieces are welcome as well."

Paris breathed out.

Xi and Gwok nodded with satisfaction.

The gathering let loose a collected sigh as the tension diffused.

Magister Paris turned to the party and raised his hands.

"Our winners! Coming in at 453 CCs. By the power invested in me by the Pudong Tower, I now award you 141 CCs each!"

A wave of jubilation flowed from the crowd and spread through the multitude of cheering Mages. Gwen felt overwhelmed by the sudden outburst. Had it not been for the Xiao's intervention, their reception would have been subtle, but now they were at the epicentre of the event's conclusion.

She turned and bowed toward each direction. Richard raised his hand to the squealing of girls from the crowd. Mina looked like she wanted to kick her brother, who paraded back and forth as he'd won a boxing match. Gwen could also see Fei, the Xu Mages, and Felicity in the crowd, waving frantically toward them and cheering.

Taking advantage of the distraction, the Elder Xiao hastily retrieved his Clan's children and beat a hasty retreat.

As the excitement died down and the records exchanged hands, Gwen and her party finally found themselves alone. For an hour after the end of the Dungeon, they had been made to shake, greet, and exchange contacts with hundreds of other Mages. Where Gwen's Message Device had been derelict, it now held the names and titles of a hundred strangers whose faces she could not recall.

When the party finally exhausted its social duties, the day was well into the mid-afternoon.

Jun presented to them their boarding passes.

The return-embarkment was likewise prolonged, with passengers using the remaining time to socialise and exchange goods and promises. Still fatigued from having only a few hours of sleep, Gwen rested her eyes, sheltered in the corner of the upper cabin, and quickly found herself dozing off, her lulling head slumped on Jun's shoulder.

Mina likewise took the opportunity to take a nap on the smiling Richard, who looked upon his cousin with benevolence and happiness.

When Gwen awoke, it was already evening. The shining city of Shanghai loomed in the distance, its piercing reflection stabbing like daggers into the dark waters of the South China Sea.

Though the feeling was faint, she felt that she was going home.

 

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Wutosama

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

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