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Gwen and Richard found a Parisian cafe for an 'arvo' luncheon on University Rd named "Pierre's Patisserie". After the passing of the examine-crisis, the duo settled into a lull of teas and ices, measuring minutes with the churning of coffee spoons. The tea was a blend of leaves grown from an 'Elven' sanctum in an Indian Orange Zone, diffusing a mild, potion-like effect which dispelled the fatigue of the hectic morning.

Gwen called up Mina and told her of Mayuree's offer.

"Just Mayuree? Round face, about my height, Diviner?"

"Yeah?"

"Oh, sugars," Mina's reply sounded less than thrilled. "She's a real sticky customer. You didn't let her latch onto you, did you?"

"Erg..." Gwen's next words caught in her throat. Had she already misstepped?

"Is Richard coming?"

"Of course."

"Right, don't do anything I wouldn't do. Ah-Bao will drop me off at Fudan as soon as possible. See you in twenty."

* * *

A dark Audi A6 pulled into University road about half an hour later.

Mina emerged from the exuberant eggshell interior of the saloon sporting a handsome double-breasted jacket, hinting at a shimmering dress hidden beneath the canvas covers. She had prettied up for the encounter, her impeccably coiled hair framed her China doll face, drawing admiring eyes from passersby.

Behind Mina, they were surprised to find Tao, unsurprising adorned with a red duckbill cap and his signature Adidas getup.

“Sup Cuz!” Tao threw Gwen and Richard a few arcane rap signs. “How’s the test, dawg?”

“It went well, Peaches. Thanks for asking.” Gwen gave the both of them a friendly peck. "Mina, do you think Mayuree would protest if..."


"Mia's going to be fine with it." Mina batted a hand in the air, interrupting Gwen's well-meaning bluster. "She's the sort that's friends with everyone."

"So, what can you tell me about this Mia Mayuree?"

"Just Mayuree, Mia is easier and simpler though, it's a pet name."

"No surname? Is Mayuree a Clan name? Maybe a title?" Gwen was full of questions regarding their overtly friendly Diviner. "Or perhaps something more exotic?"

Mina arched a perfectly tapered brow.

"Nothing of the sort. We've just always known Mia that way. Her family is very wealthy. I recall her father was responsible for the west-wing of the School's library."

"Well, if YOU think she's wealthy..." Gwen bit her lip. "Magic-wise, she's certainly not your average Diviner; she was at the Fudan mid-year Scholarship Trials. I imagine there's gotta be something extraordinary there."

"I wouldn't know about that. We've attended a few socials with our fathers; she's well known for her Augury."

"Go on..."

"Well, that's it, to be honest. We went to school together in junior and senior high. Rumours say that Mia's got Divine blood from an old Lineage, who knows. It's not like we ran in the same circles."

"Divine lineage?" Gwen minced the words. "Diviner-Lineage? Kind of a big difference there."

"Your guess is as good as mine. The Old Bloods tend to marry within the clan, and Mia doesn't seem like one of those inbred puritans." Mina shrugged. "Whatever Mia may be, stay away from her and don't let her read your fortune!"

"But you said they're accurate!" Gwen pointed out. That was the whole hog, right? Maybe she could pick up some Divination pointers.

"Accurate fortunes are the WORST." Mina shuddered as if reeling from an unpleasant recollection. "If it's good, it ruins the surprise. If its bad, you're going to live in an agonising hell of anticipation."

"Can't you change the prediction if you know of it?"

"They're ACCURATE," Mina retorted. "Let's stop talking; I am getting a headache just trying to figure out the paradox. You can take Divination 101 next sem if you want."

"Okay," Gwen promised. "No Fortunes."

"Anyway." Mina pressed closer to Gwen. "Dad wants to thank you for helping out Peaches. His 'success’ really gave him ‘face’. He said, so he told us to help you out in the only way we can.”

“WITH Currency! Bitches!” Tao threw a few C's with his fingers. “Bling! Bling! A Ring full of Crystaaaal!”

“A sizeable war chest.” Mina slapped her brother's hands of the way. “Red Stars, Peaches, stop that! We're right in front of Fudan! People could know me!”

“What's the magnitude of his gratitude?” Richard interjected, preferring the girls cut to the chase.

“3000 HDMs,” Mina stated proudly, watching Richard's face. “For making Tao less of a loser.”

“HOLY S-“ Gwen covered her mouth. “Seriously?!”

Maybe she should professionally serve as Tao's life consultant? With every triumph, his father could dispense a bonus.

“As much of it as you can spend, yes.” Mina patted her unemployed cousin on the shoulder with sympathy. To think her endearing cousin could be so excited over a measly 3000 HDMs. Sure, it was a lot of money, but it was one off. It wasn’t as though her father, the Patriarch Wang, gave Gwen the rights to mine a vein of crystal, or the ownership of a leasehold.

"No, no. It's too much!" Gwen protested.

The others looked at her blankly. She was a terrible actor.

“Well if you insist...” Gwen felt filled with inner fire. If she had almost 6000 HDMs, it meant she had a far better chance of picking up some critical ingredient or an item that could significantly improve her bid in for the LCSS. Her face glowed, her eyes sparkled, her lips wet with anticipation.

Spirits! Ingredients! Rare Spells! Magical Items! Here I come! Gwen's inner voice celebrated the unpredictable future.

Richard scratched his nose awkwardly. To think all it took was free money to see Gwen so animated.

In the distance, a stretch-limo pulled into the parking bay.

The obsidian pane wound down to reveal Mayuree's hand waving in the air.


* * *

“So, I take it you are friends?” Gwen observed drily.

“Hell yeah!” Mayuree leaned in and nuzzled Mina on the cheek. “We’re best buds! We should hang out more often!”

Mayuree wrapped her arms around Mina's elbows, insisting on possessing at least one part of Mina as she spoke. Gwen was beginning to see why Mina said the girl was a sticky customer.

Mina discretely pushed Mayuree away from her.

“Well, you know. Life calls.” Mina glanced at the empty spot next to Richard and sighed. Her plans had fallen apart as soon as the door of the limo opened and Mayuree snagged her like a trapdoor spider.

“Ha...” Gwen turned toward the spacious interior of the eight-meter-long stretch, where the other guests sat.

There were the three nondescript young men she'd seen from the exam, whose names she didn't recall. They appeared to be attached to Kitty, the Para-Elemental Ice Mage.

Even if for no reason other than politeness, Gwen wanted to make some small talk with the stoic four-some, but felt impeded by the spectacle that dominated the space between them.

Taking up two seats, Tao sat with his legs wide open, looking thoroughly ‘gangsta’.

Gwen was just wondering if Tao could discretely displace himself when her cousin made an obscene motion with his fingers.

“What chu looking at?" He swaggered abrasively to the quiet Kitty, who sat opposite him with an expression full of loathing, giving him the stink eye everytime their gazes met. "U wanna to ride this bad boi?"

Gwen spat forth a thimble full of the sparkling water she'd been sipping, soaking the front of her blouse. Bloody hell, she cursed in silence. How can there exist a human being so gifted at drawing out the worst in people?

Sure enough, one of the young men instantly took on an expression that suggested he was about to deliver retributive justice for the icy princess.

Gwen sighed. She wanted off Tao's wild ride. Her eyes met Richard's. Only the water Mage could subtly diffuse the situation without setting the Limo alight. After all, there was nothing quite like cold water to cool some hotheads.

Receiving his affirmation, she turned to see what was Mina's reaction to all this.

Mina's expression was mildly vacant, as though she was someplace far away. It was the look of insensibility made dull by long-term exposure to trauma.

Maybe the Limo could pull over first. Gwen hoped against hope. They were still on the orbital ring-road going 60 to 80.

"Lui, settle down."

The interceding voice was sweet and soft, but the cold tone of the command struck the heated young man like a sliver of ice.

Obediently, Lui settled back into his seat.

Gwen watched the body language of the trio as Liu sat with his arms folded across his chest. She felt a prickling suspicion beginning to take shape within her mind. Rather than students from Fudan, these men reminded Gwen of discrete bodyguards.

Kitty likewise took on Mayuree's advise and turned away from Tao, putting on an expression that suggested a stain sat opposite her, not a man.

"Sorry," Mina apologised to Mayuree.

"It's alright." Mayuree turned to Gwen to pivot the conversation. "Anything you're after at the auction?"

"Well," Gwen replied with complete honesty. "I don't know. What should I expect?"

Mayuree excitedly began to rattle off a list of potential purchases.

Outside, dusk descended. The illuminated nightlife of Shanghai came to life one by one, as though beckoned by an unseen Conjurer.

* * *

The limo pulled into the illuminated expanse of an enormous hotel.

"We're here!" Mayuree's treacly voice announced.

They had arrived at the Shanghai Hyatt-Regency, an eighty-eight storey marvel of a building situated in the heart of the Bund district. Perhaps in homage to the two Mage Towers, or mayhap designed for symmetry, it also consisted of two towers, each constructed with a curved-glass exterior which offered panoramic views of Shanghai from CBD to the Huangpu.

“This is the ‘super secret’ House of M Auction?” Gwen's heels tapped the marble pavement as she stepped from the limosine.

The atmosphere felt more akin to a red-carpet event. All that was missing was the paparazzi. Well-dressed guests emerged from chauffeured vehicles or engaged the awaiting valets, beyond which a stream of waitstaff bowed at patrons before guiding them into the lobby and beyond.

The atrium itself was an architectural miracle of vaulted glass thirty-meters high, encased in rose-quartz marble and smoky-oak wood panelling. Beneath the cathedral of crystalline splendour, suited men and sparkling women engaged in polite conversation over canapés, sipping from tall flutes filled with amber liquid.

Besides Gwen, Mina allowed her jacket to slid from her torso and into her Storage Ring, revealing the full force of her silvery, shimmering dress. Sheer, glimmering, high-waisted and loosely hanging from her slender shoulders, the gown fitted Mina’s princess demeanour perfectly.

“You’re gorgeous,” Richard said the words before Gwen could utter her compliment. “I am positively underdressed in comparison and feel both inferior and abashed in your presence.”

“Never!” Mina cooed at Richard, whose face was entirely serious. With an expression of smugness, she hooked an elbow in between the space between his arm and his waist. “Let’s head in. The exotic fauna garden on the second-floor atrium is a wonder!”

Tao followed the couple, a natural-born third wheel.

"I am leaving a part of Lea with you." Richard knew better than to be entirely parted from Gwen; his cousin had a perchance for attracting trouble that was second to none. With a discrete incantation, he materialised a small, amorphous blob to hover just above Gwen's shoulders.

“34-B!” Mayuree reminded them as they left. She turned to Gwen, eyes sparkling. “Shall we?”

With her coat off, the Diviner dressed surprisingly conservatively. The bubbly girl had on an emerald one-piece that was tapered at the waist and flared above and below. Her shoulders were bare, but the off-white dress was otherwise modest and endearing.

Mayuree raised a hand to invite Gwen into the fray, but Gwen declined politely, wary of Mina's predictions.

* * *

“Ms Song!”

They were intercepted on the second floor by a surprised Magus Yuu.

“It’s good to see you again so soon, Ms Song.” The Magus shook her hand in an over-intimate manner, insisting that there was no need to bow. “Ms Mayuree, your presence delights me.”

“Hey there, Meng.” Mayuree nodded at the Magus curtly. “The Auction prep is going well?”

Meng, Gwen duly noted. Not Magus, nor Sir. Just Meng.

“Of course, Mistress,” Yuu replied with an edge of caution to his voice. “All the items are secured.”

“Is brother here?”

“Master Marong? He is in the VIP suite with his friends.”

“I don’t want a repeat of last time,” Mayuree’s voice had a touch of steel, which sounded to Gwen as strange coming from a face so sweet and innocent.

“Of course, Mistress,” Yuu retreated from the two girls. “I shall waste no more of your time. Ms Song, please enjoy the Auction.”

Gwen turned to Mayuree.

“Mistress?” She raised an arched brow.

“Don't pay it any mind.” Mayuree laughed. "You probably think it makes me sound like an old woman, right?"

Gwen returned a polite chuckle. That wasn't the point.

Mina was right; it was best not to delve too deep. She should get her auction done and get out of here. They could be home before midnight.

When they reached the private Box 34-B, Gwen saw that Kitty had already taken up residence alongside the three stoic stooges.

“Kitty.” Gwen nodded at her before finding a seat closer to the edge.

Kitty snubbed Gwen at first, but her expression softened when she saw that Gwen had no desire to engage in further conversation. Mayuree sat beside Gwen and again tried to strike up a conversation, with Gwen answering her queries thoughtfully, though keeping a polite distance from her personal life.

The amphitheatre was a concert complex converted for the auction, possing of four tiers of private boxes, an upper and lower circle, and a standing-room pit.

Tao arrived soon after, his unusual demeanour drawing unfriendly and sceptical glances toward their box.

Richard and Mina appeared shortly. By Mina's confession, they had taken a whirlwind tour of the buffet table before retreating to the second floor to sip pinot gris from tall fluted glasses over a vista of the Bund at night.

“There’s a BUFFET?” Gwen moaned. Why hadn’t she seen the buffet? It was Mayuree, Gwen moped. She was denied a boon of deletable Wildland supplements while trying to shake off her adhesive companion politely.

“Here, I got something for you,” Mina materialised a plate of miscellaneous food-stuffs stacked atop a plate filled to the brim. “That is, Richard asked me to get some for you. You should have mingled. Lea said you walked right past the buffet section!"

“Thanks, guys. I knew I could count on you.” Gwen took the laden plate from Mina’s delicate hands and began the terrible work of replenishing her reserves. Caliban had taken a toll from her only hours ago. Whether its calories, vitality or mana, she would take all comers, especially since it's free.

Mayuree looked upon the diminishing plate of food piled three-stacks high as if seeing Gwen for the first time. The others who had never seen a performance of Gwen’s bottomless appetite likewise regarded her with wide-eyed wonder. There was an internal sound of glass shattering, their vision of the prim and elegant sorceress shattering like a crystal goblet dashed against the concrete pavement.

* * *

A serving staff wordlessly removed the offending plate of canape wrappings from the room.

Gwen wiped her hands and dabbed the sauce from her lips.

“Where do the items come from?” Gwen asked Mayuree out of curiosity.

“Here and there, traders, adventurers, Magus and Magisters looking to trade for rare ingredients, that sort of thing- but that can wait. It's starting!”

Upon the illuminated central stage, the auctioneer began.

The presiding agent wore a charcoal vest over a white silk shirt, accentuated with a bright blue tie. He stood ramrod straight, thin as a pencil, his face severe and aristocratic.

"LADIES and GENTS, MAGES, MAGUS and MAGISTERS! Thank you for attending our Auction, hosted by the House of M, humbly at your service! My name is Arden Cooper, and I am your Bid Caller for the night."

The auctioneer’s accent was distinctly British, his sonorous voice rolling off the tongue like smoothly churned butter, every syllable accentuated and annunciated deliberation and emphasis.

"We have a lot of items to move tonight! We are item rich but time poor! And so, serving the scarcity of time, allow me to open with our first item!"

An illusory barrier faded from existence, revealing a pair of exquisitely crafted ankle-high boots.

“Ladies and Gents, a pair of Boots of Levitation, unisex, self-fitted, crafted by T.K. Giro from the hide of an albino Bauxite Rhino from the Orange Zone southward of Frontier Phuket. This item allows the use of the Levitation effect by will. Perfect for the curious Dungeon crawler and consummate traveller. As a master-crafted item, the shoes possess an allowance of two hundred and fifty kilograms, with a maximum height of six meters. Furthermore, the shoes possess a built-in Feather Fall feature...”

“The bidding begins at 400 HDMs.”

"500!" A voice called out from the darkness, raising a glyphed paddle.

“500, thank you, Sir, for the fine start.”
“600.”
“800.”
“850, calling once!”
“I am happy to sell it at 850 unless another enterprising collector would like to become the possessor of this unique item.”
“Is that so, then 875 it is, the hammer is in the air, Sir.”
“Madam?”
“Of course, 875 remains a bargain, Madam.”
“I would like to remind all present that a portion of tonight’s proceeds will go towards the maintenance and care of our citizens in the Frontier, as you know, Sydney has suffered a terrible setback. All that Auroch beef, lost! Truly a tragedy!”
“900! I must congratulate you, Sir, for having such rare judgement.”
“900?”
“Going once?”
“No more?”
“Very well…”
“No?”
“Going thrice! SOLD! To C028 for 900 HDMS!”
A round of applause greeted the winner, whose box was just out of Gwen's field of Vision.

So this was the auction. Gwen was happy to know that the methodology did not differ from her old world; only that the items were stranger than fiction.

The next article was a pair of Bangles that provided a weak but autonomously activated, near-perpetual shield, allowing even an unconscious Mage to deflect attacks. It sold for 960 HDMs.

The next was a set of a dozen potions of Heroism, blessed by some famous Cleric from the Roman Catholic Church. The liquid was advertised to dispel fear, provide clarity of mind, deliver minor healing, and provide enhancement in both fortitude, strength, and dexterity. Sold as a set, these fetched 110 HDMs.

“Next! A rare Ring offered by the Wildland Trade Consortium of Pudong, a Ring of Animal Influence, crafted by a Demi-human master!”

The clamour from the crowd rose in pitch and volume.
Gwen shifted to the edge of her seat. An item made by a non-human Magic User?

“From the Woods that Wend, crafted by Master Iythronel Yllahice from the yearling growth of a millennia-old Dryad, this ring offers wearers the ability to speak to mundane and magical animals! Furthermore, users may command and influence low-tier Magical Beasts, as well as evoke an area of effect fear which affects all creatures within a maximum radius of one hundred meters.”

"A Demi-human crafter?" Gwen turned to Mayuree again.

Mayuree nodded.

The auctioneer continued.

“The bidding begins at 1000 HDMs.”
"... 2000!"
"... 3000!"

The contest for the ring was far fiercer than Gwen had anticipated, ending at 3850 HDMs.

“What does a Demi-human do with HDMs?” Gwen asked Mayuree, expecting that the ‘Mistress’ of Magus Yuu would possess some insight into the matter.

“Trade, really,” Mayuree replied casually. “We have resources the Demi-humans need; they have items and ingredients that we need. HDMs are an easy currency for exercising that goal.”

“Do they have any use for the crystals itself?”

“Sure, empowering our magical devices, using it for themselves, or dispensing it as a reward. Mageocracy HDMs are now a standardised currency even among the other races. Man-made HDMs are SUPER popular.”

“How so?” Gwen found the notion puzzling. Were the other races treating HDMs like the U.S Petrol-Dollar? Was this a naturally forming phenomena or a politically imposed one? "Can't the Demi-humans mine their own? All the mines are in the Wildlands, no?"

“No, you Silly! Only we can mass manufacture HDMs.” Mayuree’s helpful tone was full of eager information, happy that Gwen was speaking to her so overtly. "The other races tend to prefer barter. The Mageocracy's universal currency makes cross-cultural, intercontinental trading much easier."

“I see.” Gwen turned back to the auction. "Thanks for the heads up."

"Anytime! You'll learn all of this in the General Course anyway."

A dozen more items came and went to their new owners.

“LADIES AND GENTS!” The auctioneer continued. It has been almost an hour since he begun, his clarion voice growing in intensity with every item sold, as though the auctioneer's stamina fed off the flow of currency. “Now for the rare ingredient component of our evening!”

Applause and cheers hailed the announcement.

The 'ingredients' consisted mainly of Creature parts, each with different attributes of elemental affinities that made them unique in creating particular kinds of magic items. Hide, eyes, teeth, nail and organs of various creatures were also auctioned off at prices ranging from 50 to over 500 HDMs.

“Next, a Fruit of Life, A Fructum Vitae!”

“Gwen!” both Mina and Richard spoke up, but Gwen needn’t their advice to know that she needed to bid for the fruit.

“Someone else must have found one as well, from the Hengsha Dungeon,” Richard observed when the fruit made its appearance. It’s durian like exterior hinting that it likely had the same origin as their own. The life of the fruit was kept captive in an inscribed stasis box.

“100!”
“120!”
“140!”

“200!” Gwen called out.

“Very good, to the lovely lady in 34-B! 200! Going once!”
“230!”
“45-A, 230! Do I have an answer from the Miss in 34-B.”
“250!”
“270!”
"275!"
"278!"

"Go to 300," Mayuree suggested. "Don't creep your bids."

“300!” Gwen raised a paddle which displayed the number she announced.

“300! Going once! Going twice! GONE! Sold to 34-B!”

Gwen breathed out.

"What do you need a Fruit of Youth for, anyhow?" Mayuree dug for details. "Someone in the family looking to turn back the clock? There are better options for that purpose."

“It’s a Void Mage thing,” Gwen told the half-truth. “I need as many as I can get.”

“Magical fruits have diminishing returns though,” Mayuree pointed out helpfully. “How many have you had?”

“Two?”

“Four or five is the usual limit, then you’ll barely notice its effects,” Mayuree advised. “Although you should probably consult someone from the Alchemical Faculty. Maybe they can synthesise it for you for some CCs. I can help out if you lack the connections."

“Thanks, I’ll look into it if I get the chance.” Gwen returned her eyes toward the auctioneer. “Now what?”

“Someone will be here to collect and deliver,” Mayuree told her expertly.

“You come to these auctions often?" Gwen tested her talkative companion.

"Now and then." Mayuree shifted her attention toward the stage.

Gwen followed her eyes.

As the illusory veil lifted from the next item, a flash of elemental lightning lit up the entire auditorium. Gwen's eyes locked onto a Creature Core with the appearance of a yellow diamond.

"NOW! A WONDER from the Forbidden Zones of Central Africa, pilfered from the Heart of Darkness, from the reachable sanctums of the Mbochi, a rare and precious gift for those who wish to traffic in the power of the Gods, channel the divine essence of the heavens - A Crystalised Heart of the Congolese Eland!"

Gwen had no idea what an Eland was, but she knew that this was an item she needed to possess. Within her pocket dimension, Ariel had sensed the resonating force emanating from the crystal heart; begging for release into the Material Plane. As motes of lightning mana filled the amphitheatre, the empathic link became so intense that Gwen felt as though she had to go to the bathroom.

Discretely, Gwen allowed Ariel to manifest in her lap.

"Oh! How precious!" Mayuree did not seem surprised at all that Gwen summoned a Lightning-element Familiar. "What's its name?"

"Ariel," Gwen replied distractedly, trying to catch the auctioneer's boastful description while trying to read Ariel's frantic body language.

In her lap, Ariel was busily trying to illustrate something with its paws, alternating between begging, wagging its head cutely, and flopping onto its belly and squirming like a serpent-waisted cat.

"Here, let me try. Lea, if you please?" Richard intervened.

A minuscule Lea about the size of Ariel's non-combat form appeared beside it and began to converse with Ariel.

"EEeee! EE!"
"EE?!" Lea replied
"EEEE!"
"Eeee ee?!" Lea nodded.

"Lea speaks marten?" Gwen felt her knowledge of the Always-Amazing Undine renewed yet again.

"Nature spirits can Commune with Animals at will," Mayuree cut in helpfully beside her. "I can too, you could have asked..."

Lea turned her tiny face up toward Gwen.

"It says that it wants to eat the gem so that it can grow strong like Cali."

"Why?" Gwen seemed puzzled by the marten's request. "Ariel can't shapeshift, can it? It's not like Caliban."

"Not like Caliban, no," Richard advised. "But you have to remember that both Caliban and Ariel are not actual fauna. They're summoned manifestations tied to your School of Conjuration, how else do you think they reside in your Pocket Dimension? They don't drink water. They eat mana crystals; they don't' defecate, they don't suffer from illnesses, nor can they be bred."

"They're Elementals," Gwen realised where Richard was going with the reminder. She cited a line from her Bestiary textbook. "In nature, Elemental beings are manifested from the primordial chaos where the fabric of the Planes is thin. They grow in power through living in regions rich with reinforcing elemental forces."

Unconsciously, she had grown too accustomed to Ariel being its cute little marten self. She had allowed too much of her old-world cognition to filter into her knowledge of the new one. Ariel may look like a pet and feel like a fluffy tubby, but it wasn't a terrestrial being. It remained a part of her magic; a congealed, semi-permanent phenomenon manifested from the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Lightning. Strip away the animus provided by Summon Familiar and Ariel would be a ball of lightning, just as Caliban would be a malevolent mass of hungering void. Only spirits could retain their astral forms, and neither of her companions creatures were spirits.

"... a region ravaged by storms and lightning, beyond the habitation of man! Here is a once in a lifetime opportunity!"

Below them, the auctioneer had finished extolling the virtues of the Eland's heart. Now was the moment of truth.

“The float begins at 2000 HDMs!”

“Oh no, there’s no way we can afford that.” Gwen turned to Richard with a forewarning, watching her friend’s jaws set tightly. From her observations of the previous Auctions, they were most definitely short.

“3,000!”
“4,000!”
“4,500!”

"I'll lend you 1200 HDMs," Mina suddenly interjected. "Go for it!"

"4,600!" Gwen held up her card and called out.
"4,700!"
"4,800!"
"4,900!"

"5000!" She gritted her teeth and continued. There better be some fortuitous part-time jobs when this is said and done, Gwen thought worriedly. Maybe she could take Tao out for another spin and squeeze some more gratuity from Patriarch Wang.

"5100!"

Gwen cursed. From the sounds of it, there was at least three others bidding.

"5500, going once! Going TW-ICE!" The auctioneer did that elongated voice which irked Gwen to no end.

"5550!" Gwen had to save as much money as she can for her University days ahead. There was still accommodation, food, textbooks, socials, and God knows how many other expenses. The Scholarship may mean that her Courses are free of charge, but that's assuming she even receives one. Gwen would have to find a loan somewhere, maybe contact Gunther or Alesia to beg for alms, which made her face burn just thinking about it. Asking babulya made it no better, in fact, considering her Grandfather's scowling displeasure, she would rather sleep at a shelter.

"5700!" The next bid dashed the last of Gwen's motivation. Opportunities come and go. Ariel's existential upgrade could wait.

"Keep bidding!" Mina urged.

Richard placed a hand on Mina's arm.

"No. We can't afford it."

"But its a rare item!" Mina looked as though she wanted to start bidding on Gwen's behalf.

"We can't afford it," Richard's repeated words stabbed Gwen in the gut. She hugged the antsy Ariel close to her chest and squeezed her Familiar tightly. Sensing its master's disappointment, Ariel struck out its salmon-pink tongue and licked her face.

"Sorry, Ariel..." Gwen stroked the marten. "Not today."

"Eeee..." Ariel channelled Gwen's guilt and likewise appeared dejected.

Mina looked flabbergasted by the idea that Gwen could give up something so potentially beneficial to one of her primary powers.

“7,000!”

The next call surprised them all.

Somebody must have wanted the crystal desperately.

"Well, that's that then." Gwen breathed out. She felt less disappointed now that it was clear the item wasn't to be.

Such was life, Gwen mused to herself. You win some; you lose some. If she wanted to ensure victory, she would have to work harder, for fame, for currency, for influence. That's the hard reality of it.

“Going once… going twice…” the auctioneer announced quickly. “Sold! For 7,000 HDMs!”

The sound of applause filled the auditorium.

More items came and went, but Gwen had lost the curious anticipation with which she had begun the night.

A Ring that allowed one to negate Paralysis, as well as ignore Slow and Halt effects fetched 8,000 HDMs.

Another rare item which made an appearance was a shimmering dress which turned out to be Elven made chainmail, as light as cloth and as resilient as tier 5 spider silk, capable of impeding virtually all non-magical physical attacks. That austere item fetched 12,000 HDMs.

It would seem that Demi-human artifice fetched almost double the price of human-made items.

“Good grief,” Gwen breathed out when the hammer fell. "That's an obscene amount of money."

For a dangerous moment, she wondered if she should pawn something, but her rings were priceless. The teleportation ring was from Gunther. The Ring of Evasion won by her Master. The Storage Ring was from her Opa. They were untappable treasure troves.

Below, the applause finally died.

With a final, astronomical exchange, the auction had reached its conclusion. The stage went dark, and the sound of shifting seats and moving people filled the auditorium. Gwen sighed. It was time to leave this place of extravagant opulence and return to reality.

“Don’t worry about it,” Mina assured her. “You can always use CCs. As long as whatever you need exists, somebody somewhere will try and get it into your hands. It's just a matter of time."

But time was precisely the matter, Gwen wanted to retort. As her grandmother so wisely reminded her. Time was the only finite thing she possessed.

There was a knock at the box’s door. One of the young men opened it to reveal Magus Yuu.

“MS Song, I have your Fructum Vitae.” Yuu presented the piece of white-jade flesh, stored within a stasis device.

With a touch of Rings, Gwen transferred 300 HDMs over to Yuu, and the exchange was complete.

"Oh yes, I have also brought the item you requested, Mistress." Yuu motioned behind him, and a young woman in an attendant's uniform brought out a velvet cushion, upon which a crystalline heart sat, glowing with the hysterical radiance of elemental lightning.

Gwen felt her heart catch in her throat as the Core illuminated the interior of their private box.

Richard took on a thoughtful expression and turned toward Mayuree with an unreadable expression.

Tao's eyes were aglow, as were Mina's.

Casually, Mayuree plucked the core from the cushion.

“Gwen, catch!” she announced mirthfully and tossed the offending object toward a flabbergasted Gwen, who fumbled her catch with heart-in-mouth panic until she finally caught it on her lap.

“Wha-?” Gwen held the precious object; the 7000 HDM treasure hummed in her trembling hands. “W-What’s the meaning of this?”

“A memento for our friendship,” Mayuree announced with a glint in her eye that sent shivers down Gwen’s spine. "For commemorating the day we met."

The heart-shaped core felt as though it possessed the weight of a neutron star in Gwen's lap.

Should she return it? Give it back? Of course, she should. A gift without cause is a dangerous thing. A nasty, hazardous thing. A debt.

"I can't take this!" Gwen protested. "It's too mu-"

“Eeee!!”

'Crunch!'

Gwen looked toward her lap.

Below, Ariel had broken off a small chunk of the crystal and was now happily chewing away.

She regarded the happy Ariel with a look of abject horror. She should have dispelled the marten! She cursed her inattentiveness. Ariel was too instinctual and unintelligible to obey empathic commands, and Gwen had not explicitly stated that it could not touch nor consume the thing it desired desperately. That was her fault, not Ariel's.

Her eyes fell upon the smiling face of Mayuree, so childish, tender and innocent. Mayuree’s warm-black irises glowed with a tinge of near-colourless violet, burning with motes of Divination. Her expression though, remained adorably naive, as though she had not the slightest agenda in the world.

There was the sound of another crunch coming from her lap. Not that it mattered the second time. There was no returning the Core the moment Ariel had taken the first unexpected bite.

“We're friends, aren't we?” Mayuree begged with a tone that tickled her soul. "Right?"

 

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A note from Wutosama

That took much longer than expected. I might be coming down with temperature from China. 


About the author

Wutosama

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

Achievements
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