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The administration building, named after the Transmuter-Meister Chen Yeyao, had recently been refurbished with a fresh coat of cream and cherry which seemed to be a popular colour motif for the ageing section of Fudan’s historical architecture. Thankfully, as if to mask the unsavoury palate, a thirty-meter high sheet of vines had taken residence across half the building, giving the faux-Georgian architecture an air of incidental antiquity.

Gwen and Petra entered through the foyer and found their way to the campus residences department, bypassing streams of administrative staff, mostly NoMs with the occasional Mage. Behind the chest-height counter, three NoMs sat hammering away into tablets, working through stacks of paper. There was a ticketing system for service, and the girls took a seat to await their turn. A sign indicated that the stall closed at 1600.

‘203’ their ticket read. The current counter was 188.

Petra took the opportunity to make small talk with Gwen regarding the family, particularly the open secrecy surrounding her father, the infamous Hai Song.

"He was quite famous, you should know. Before he uprooted himself and left Shanghai. Even my Master speaks of him. By the age of sixteen, he was already a member of the PLA's lauded generation of Mages slated for leadership."

"Power to him then, but I don't think Dad would have made a good leader for anyone." Gwen then told Petra of the father that she knew, as well as his involvement in her abduction from Singapore. When Gwen further elaborated on her father's infamous exploits with women, Petra's face took on a frosty expression.

"That explains... a lot."

"Oh no," Gwen grimaced. "Did he..."

"No, no!" Petra snorted. "I mean, my master had a resentful look when we talked. I assumed they had been rivals but now... I suppose they were more intimately acquainted."

Gwen breathed out with evident relief. Her father, in his peculiar way, was becoming more agreeable to her.

"Now Serving 189..."

Twenty minutes later, the counter ticked over.

“Da shto za...” Petra swore under her breath. “I’ve got samples curing in the lab! It's 1435, and they close at 1600! Gwen, wait here.”

She pulled herself from the visitor chair and made straight for the counter.

“Yes? What’s your ticket number?” A woman behind the counter looked up toward Petra. She had the appearance of incumbent administration staff anywhere, with the bearing and girth of one who sat for more than ten hours a day.

Petra glared at the NoM woman, menacing her with steely Siberian husky-eyes until the NoM stammered a response.

“We’re inundated,” the poor woman quaked beneath Petra's presence, swallowing in rapid succession. Though Petra was now a researcher, she had seen training under a Master of the Moscow Tower, renowned for its ruthlessness. The pressure exerted by a Mage trained in interrogation wasn’t something that a NoM civilian could endure, not to mention Petra's mineral-enhanced pupils arrested all attempts at averting her gaze.

The woman now realised the extent of her erroneous judgement. As a non-magical staff member, employees like herself were fundamentally a part of the decor of Fudan, as replaceable as anything else in the university. There were days when one could slack off. Today was not one of those days.

A Mage member of the staff sauntering into the front portion of the office took a gander at Petra, made an abrupt turn, then executed an Expeditious Retreat.

“I-I’ll serve you now!” the woman stammered.

“No! You do your Job!” Petra stated coldly. She turned to the crowd. “189! Where are you?! Get over here!”

“…” The young man who’d just stood up a moment ago held his ticket as though he was wrangling a snake. “Er… you can go first.”

“Are you sure?” Petra walked over to the stunned young man and waved her ‘203’.

“Y-yeah, please.”

“Here’s mine in exchange, thanks.”

When Petra broke her icy exterior to flash a pleasant smile at the young man, his entire face turned scarlet. Gwen could have sworn the poor man's knees knocked loud enough to make a sound.

Another one bites the dust, Gwen mused.

“Gwen, with me.” Petra turned to her. Gwen lifted herself from the couch, feeling the gaze of a dozen others critically berate her line-cutting, and quickly appeared beside her companion.

“This is my friend Gwen Song. She’s the current holder of the mid-year LCSS. She and her companion, Richard Huang, also a member of the LCSS, require lodging at the Student’s Quarters. What are your current vacancies? We’re looking for long-term and single dwellings only.”

The woman pulled up a stack of files and began to work through the list as though a Transmuter had hastened her.

“Starting second-semester, though any vacancies now would be good.” Petra urged in a tone that possessed a jagged edge.

“Please.” Gwen smiled at the woman politely, flashing her a sympathetic smile.

“Let's see…we have a shared room in the upper campus…” The woman pulled out a file and placed it in front of them.

“A single, if you will, or rather, two singles.” Gwen clarified her request. “Privacy for both myself and my fellow LCSS member is paramount.”

“You and Richard can’t co-habit by the way,” Petra pointed out. “The dorms have mixed gender, but the rooms are single-sex only. The same applies to all residences on Campus.”

Under Petra’s watchful supervision, the poor woman produced a dozen or so vacancies that are currently available. Unfortunately, all of them were for shared rooms.

“When do you expect to have more clearance?” Petra tapped the forms. “Anyone leaving when the current semester ends?”

The woman produced a few more potential vacancies but could not offer a single room that met their criteria, not to mention Gwen would have liked to keep Richard close if possible.

Petra glowered at the woman, to think that had she not intervened, they could have wasted up to two hours here.

“There’s n-nothing left…” the woman quaked visibly.

“That’s alright,” Gwen said sweetly to the woman, tugging on Petra's sleeves to urge her to leave. “Thank you for your time.”

As the girls' silhouettes faded from sight, the tension in the room visibly dissolved.

“190!”
“191!”

Somehow, work efficiency seemed to reach a new peak as well.

* * *

“What now?” Gwen asked her friend.

“We’ll try the more expensive Dorms; these are privately owned and rented out to students.”

The girls cleared the administration section and approached the lower part of the Campus which boarded Guoding Road.

“Which one’s yours?” Gwen asked out of curiosity. “Don’t you live near here?”

“I do. About fifteen minutes walk from here. Master set me up in one of the dorms just outside of the square, on private land.”

“There wasn't room on campus, even for you?” Gwen inquired curiously. Petra had been here for almost two years now, technically longer, considering she came when she was fifteen and started under Wen as a research member when she was sixteen.

“There was, but...” Petra explained patiently. “I am not fond of the rowdiness of the campus dorms. But you're much more at home dealing with people than I am. The other reason I'd thought we try out the campus dorm is cost. If Master puts a word in with the Dean, you might even rent for free. Although, I doubt the Bursary can kick people out on your behalf. That would invite trouble from the ethics committee.”

“Right.” Gwen followed Petra through the gardens at the Qinyun building, a beautiful marvel of curved class and soaring steel wings, toward the Student’s quarter. Her companion was dressed little more purposefully today, sporting a V-neck lime skivvy matched with a hip-hugging Dirndl skirt, decked with suede ankle-high boots with a combat heel that looked as though it could crack pavement. The girls meandered dashingly across the square, catching glances from passersby as they sauntered through the green lawn toward a newly risen section of the campus' ongoing gentrification.

Their destination was a real estate office with a glowing minimalist logo that said 'WMR Properties and Conveyancers'. As soon as the girls entered through the glass doors, they were greeted by an elaborate scale model of the surrounding region, demonstrating the sights and benefits of the complex which, incredulously, stretched for a dozen blocks.

“Is Manager Xie in?” Petra asked the fresh-faced NoM receptionist. “We’re looking to rent two single rooms. As close to campus as possible.”

“Miss… Kuznetsov?" The reception quickly glanced down before looking up with a smile like the blooming of a rare flower. “Of course! I’ll get Manager Xie right away; he might be in conference though. One moment.”

Petra found a couch and sat, crossing her legs luxuriously in a way that made Gwen want to whistle loudly. Her cousin motioned for her to relax, so Gwen joined her in an adjoining seat.

Manager Xie, a short, balding man with a face like a pudgy Buddha, came to greet them a few minutes later. His eyes became two narrow slits when he saw the two girls lounging comfortably in the company's crimson tub-chairs, their legs like long white pistils extending from two oversized tulips.

“Milly! No tea?!” he berated the receptionist, who immediately ran to provide the beverage. “Miss Kuznetsov! It is a pleasure to see you again. Are you happy with your current lodgings? Looking to upgrade? Please pass on my most sincere greetings to Master Wen.”

“I am satisfied with my lodging, Manager Xie, thanks for asking,” Petra replied. Gwen couldn’t help but note that Petra’s voice had a natural coldness to it, a keen edge - if one had to resort to synaesthesia. Magister Wen also had that coldness to her demeanour, Gwen noticed, wondering if it had to do with possessing the mineral affinity. Besides her, Petra introduced them. “This is my kinswoman, Gwen Song, a newly enrolled member under the LCSS program. We are looking for two rooms, singles, if possible, for herself and a family member, Richard Huang, also a young scholar of the LCSS program.”

“I am in rare company.” The Manager bowed. “Please to make your acquaintance, Miss Song. May I ask what Clan or House you hail from?”

Gwen shook the Manager’s hand.

“Gwen Song. I am... an independent, for now. I’ll be in your care.”

“Of course. May I inquire as to your price range? As Miss Kuznetsov would know, our rooms ranged from single to shared, service or unserviced, self-contained or shared facility. All of course, with a range of rates to suit your needs.”

The Manager did not miss a beat. Gwen was impressed; the man knew how to do his job.

“Give me a list of the single options under 100.”

To Gwen’s surprise, the NoM manager possessed a small Storage Ring from which he retrieved a data slate. A few simple somatic gestures on the screen later, the man turned to show Gwen the displayed vacancies on the E-ink slate, etched upon an off-white parchment.

B17-111 :: 35 HDM / M
B22-1114 :: 30 HDM / M
B24- 404 :: 25 HDM / M

The prices were acceptable to Gwen, but turning to the map, she noted that B17 was already a half a dozen blocks from Fudan. It would mean an extra 20 to 30 minutes walk to university or a few more minutes by public transport. She had also crunched the numbers in her head earlier because their monthly HDM expenses are likely going to be in the hundreds. In addition to lodging; food, textbooks, socials, and most importantly, HDM Crystals for additional training, is going to hit three digits for the both of them.

“Can Richard and I share a double?” Gwen turned to Petra, who shook her head. “I am afraid not; the real-estate cannot register cohabitation for unmarried Mages. It’s a rule to prevent, incidents... Look, let’s say the Clans, the Houses, the prominent Families and even the Towers are all invested, shall we?"

“Not even with family members?”

“That’s never stopped some of the Clans.” Petra shrugged.

Manage Xie chuckled nervously beside them.

“Is there anything closer?” Gwen pointed to the buildings that were within fifteen to twenty minutes away from the centre of the campus, where the Henglong Building and the Towers stood.

Manager Xie tapped the screen again.

B1 P2201-P:: 520 HDM / M

Gwen almost spat out the tea that Milly had just served them.

“What is it?” Petra asked out of curiosity. "I didn't know B1 had vacancies."

“The penthouse suite,” Manager Xie intoned reverently. “It has four bedrooms, each self-contained, with a common lower mezzanine living with open kitchen and shared dining; the upper storey has a common entertainment-living room.”

“I don’t think I can afford that.” Gwen shook her head, thinking that in her old world, she probably could afford such a place if she so desired. Still, with a Fortune 500 level of success; such excess was still beyond an acceptable level of expenditure. “We’re just students.”

“I know, but I always offer,” the Manager said jovially. “One day, maybe, who knows? There are many wealthy students in Shanghai.”

“So there’s nothing?”

“I am afraid B17 and beyond is all we have at the moment. The Dormitory apartments rent-out well ahead of time. There’ may be a few openings at the end of the year though, I am more than happy to reserve what’s available.”

“Can I make a reservation now?”

“With a deposit, yes.”

"Then please put me down for one closest to campus."

Manager Xie instructed his receptionist to bring a deposit slip and a reservation form, which Gwen signed and paid, handing over a sum of 50 HDMS per reservation, one for herself, and another for Richard.

The closest vacancy that seemed to be available in January was B13, still some months away, but if that was the best Xie could offer, then that was what she must take. There were also apartments in the outlying areas, but those were either archaic, congested with NoMs, or slated for re-zoning.

"How about you bunk with me?"

Frustrated with the lack of space mid-semester, Petra advised staying at her studio. She was confident she could squeeze another mattress into her single room if she had to. Her cautionary advice was that as Gwen’s talent became well known, St Peter knows what sort of attention Gwen might begin to attract. If she could spend as little time as possible in transit, her three years at Fudan would be far safer, more expedient, and present fewer unknowns for those who cared for her. Shanghai was a safe and lawful city, but it wasn't so safe that a girl-Mage like Gwen could gallivant through its districts without care.

“I live in B3-703,” Petra pointed to one of the buildings that a mere block away from the university campus. “Well lit paths, regular patrols by the Chengguan, not too far from the convenience mart on the Boulevard.”

By now it was almost 6 PM, and the girls opted for supper. Gwen ordered enough for two, attracted a small group of spectators who marvelled at the foreigner's ability to pack away sushi as though she was a man twice her size. Thankfully, the stack of plates beside Gwen soon grew twice as high as Petra’s, becoming tall enough to hide her face from the gawkers.

After their early supper, Gwen followed Petra back to her lab, where she withstood three hours of Goulding's Primer before being let go to totter home. Still fatigued from the excess of yesterday, Gwen staggered into Mina’s apartment to find Richard cooking instant ramen.

“Ah sugars, sorry Richard, I should have doggy-bagged some sushi!” Gwen apologised as Richard combined two packets into a bowl.

“No worries. Not a fan of raw fish. Besides, I haven’t tried this flavour before, 'Black bean soy'. It looks interesting,” Richard shrugged at Gwen's self-conscious neglect. “You want some? It comes in a six-pack.”

Gwen hesitated, she wanted to try the noodles. But she just ate four hours ago. Why was it that she felt so hungry these days? Gwen confessed to being a glutton, but her hunger within the last twenty-four hours had been unreal. By the same measure, she hadn’t summoned Caliban for a few days now, nor plan to in the immediate future. Should she be eating so much? It wasn’t as though she could fire off a few Void Bolts into the sky shouting, ‘Calories be gone!’ either. Consciously, her hand moved to her abdomen, where she could feel her skin taut against the musculature. Maybe, she thought, just a taste?


* * *

Gwen drank the last of the salty soup.
The instant ramen was better than she thought.
The word instant was also a bit of a misnomer since whatever arcane method which preserved the ramen allowed it to retain the chewiness of its texture and the richness of the bone broth. It made Gwen wonder if a business model like Uber-Eats was possible in Shanghai since everyone appeared to be foodies in their own right.

Hell, Petra’s stasis cubes would be perfect.

She tried imagining Petra standing at the end of a long production line, freezing steaming bows of ramen into stasis cubes. “Two Shio, Two Pork, One Miso for 1183,” she shouts to the delivery boys outside, dozens of them, all lined up with their mopeds.

Gwen shook her head. If Petra found out about Gwen's permissible uses for her Spell-Cubes, she would probably slap Gwen on the mouth.

"... and then we came home." Gwen finished extolling her unsuccessful bid for an apartment.

“We could live further away. Or, at worst, I can live far away, and you can stay with Petra. I'll come pick you up or take you home whenever I can,” Richard suggested.

"Enough about me, we'll sort it out later. What did you do? How was work?"

"Nothing out of the ordinary," Richard recounted his day. "What'd you like to know?"

Her cousin was working with a construction crew as a specialist consultant. With Lea’s guidance, he could part the Huangpu, or more precisely, a three-by-three meter portion of it so that foundations could be laid by the Transmuters working by his side. As her cousin explained, it wasn’t so much that they didn’t have higher level Transmuters available, more so that he was the cheaper and safer option. Thanks to his high-tier affinity, he could predict changes in currents and work within a high-depth environment, all the while expending very little mana. If need be, his Abjuration Shield could even shelter fellow Mages for up to a day in the event of a catastrophic collapse under the murky waters.

“Had to save a guy as well,” Richard described with nonchalance. “Some fish-lizard that's mostly mouth and stomach got past the barrier and attacked one of the Transmuters, disrupted his Shape Water. That was a close one.”

“A Monster got into the city?!” Gwen raised a brow in surprise. “I thought the Capitals are free of Magical Creatures.”

“This is about fifty kilometres out; you can’t even see the city from where we were.” Richard orientated Gwen as to the geographic bearing of his story. “According to Reese, my foreman, it happens every other week, the further away from the city, the more frequent.”

“But NoMs are living there, right? Upstream from the river?”

“Oh yes, millions. Tens of millions. Maybe even a hundred. Shanghai itself is about 20 mils if I recall. Up to 50 mil if you include the extreme reaches of the city, which reaches Suzhou to the west, Nantong up north, and Hangzhou toward the extreme south. The moment Nantong hits the Yangtze River though, we’re looking at Frontier land until we hit Tianjin, the edge of Beijing. That's 1000 KMs of No Man's Land. 18 hours by Mage-flight.”

“The Frontier’s closer than I thought,” Gwen noted, trying to the picture a map of China from her memory of the old world. "And more significant as well. I mean back home we were just a city in the Frontier. Here I'd imagined the opposite."

“The population density is not the same though. Remember how back in Sydney, if you crossed Lithgow, you’re smack-bang in the middle of the Wildlands? I mean, the city's southern edge is less than 10 minutes Mage-flight away from a Green Zone. We used to get swarms of Tiger Sharks up the Parramatta River while there’s still ferries in the water! In Shanghai, it'd take 3 hours of Flight before human settlements fade out.”

“Do you reckon the city’ll recover?” Gwen asked, thinking of the city she used to call home. The Parramatta river must be two kilometres wide by now thanks to that Leviathan. The once placid river could probably serve as Sydney's new deep-sea port.

“Sure, Gunther has it well in hand. He’s got big plans, you know.”

“Any ideas?”

“Nothing specific.” Richard laughed. “I do know that he’s planning to rezone the whole city though. Maybe you can ask him when your LR Communication Caster is set up.”

Re-zoning a city! Gwen couldn’t help but be impressed. Could Gunther achieve what was necessary to make Sydney a Tier 1 city? It would take decades of fastidious labour, consuming the toil of millions. What plan did Gunther have in beating back the Mermen? How could he tap into the ley-lines of the land? Could the Morning Star cow the Mermen by setting the seas to boil? It could be possible, Gwen mused; it was difficult to fathom the depth of her brother-in-craft's abilities. Her Master had stated that not even he wished to face his student in battle.

* * *


Gwen arrived at the Lab early next morning, ready to face the first of her tests requested by Magister Wen. When she entered the laboratory, she was met by Petra and Magister Wen, both in white coats and looking very much like scientific researchers from her old world.

“Gwen, you’re here. Wonderful.” Wen motioned for her to come closer. Gwen wondered if she too should find a laboratory coat, but her seniors didn't seem to mind her one-piece floral-frock. “We're going to start testing your Elements today. Petra tells me you can manifest some form of Vitae-Fruit mana congelation?”

“I can.” Gwen nodded. “Would you like a demonstration?”

“I would like a sample.” Wen pointed to three Spell-Cubes Petra had prepared on a stainless steel desk.

“One lightning, one void and one of the vitae-essence, if you will.”

“I'll do my best.”

Gwen approached the table and placed her hand on the first cube. She tapped into her Sigils and allowed the free-flowing energies of the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Lighting to fill her mana channels, feeling their hysterical caress as the torrent of electricity enveloped her mana and manifested below her hand, feeding into the Cube.

The scent of ozone lingered heavily in the air.

The next one was Void, and Gwen grimaced as the ice-cold energies of the Quasi-Elemental Plane shot ramrod through her body, seeking an escape into the material. The volatile matter spilt into the Cube like viscous ink, hungrily consuming the space within until the entire cube was darker than black.

“Good God…” Magister Wen sucked in a chilling breath, placing a hand to her temples. “I can feel it from here.”

Gwen then closed her eyes and focused inwardly upon her mind’s eyes, picturing Almudj’s energy as the green motes of life flowing through the dark expanse of her Astral Form. Slowly, Almudj's primordial manifestation began to condense and congeal around her hand, dripping drop by drop into the vessel below as though filtered through layers of fabric.

“Fascinating.” Petra placed a hand above the cube felt the vibrant aura awash over her skin. Even without tapping into it, the fecund life-force was palpable. “What do you think it is, Master?”

“I would hazard an educated guess that it is an alter-form of life-force, the kind usually found in ancient beings. Do you recall Magister Salinger’s lecture, during that conference in Beijing? He had invited a Druid from the Woods that Wend. Do you remember what it was like when they demonstrated Essence Magic?”

"I do," Petra retracted her hand and continued to observe Gwen's endeavour. Inches away from the crystalline contraption, Petra’s Master likewise watched the growing intensity of the emerald cube with burning anticipation.

Gwen felt the last of her vital energy drop into the cube.

Then immediately acknowledged that something was wrong. She felt a breathlessness of the soul, as though she'd sprinted up an ascending hill, and now the air was too thin to sustain the oxygen she required to catch her breath. Feeling a mild panic, she refocused her mind's eye.

Slowly, very slowly, the emerald motes inside her body began to recover. That was the reason for her unease. The shadowy particles usually returned to their emerald-like vibrancy with far more expediency.

Through the trained synaesthesia of her Mind's eye, Gwen could sense that the emerald motes were dimmer, weaker. Their recovery seemed almost a trickle where prior the specks had pulsed to the rhythm of her heart.

What could be wrong? Was she ill?
Gwen moved a hand toward her temple and chest to feel if she had a temperature. A refractory habit then touched a hand to her chest. There, between her breasts, she felt the absence of the necklace, the Amulet, the Kirin Token. A piece of her flesh. An organ.

Could it be? She felt her mind revolt with agitation. What was it that the Kirin core had done? But it had never demonstrated such a function during all her training. Did this mean that the amulet had a passive role she could not detect? Did it contain a part of Almudj, from which now she was alienated? If so, had she given away a part of her connection to the serpent?!

“Gwen!” Petra grabbed her shoulders. “What’s wrong? You’re turning as white as a ghost! Is it the Void Cube? Did you put too much vitality into filling it?”

“Give her a potion,” Magister Wen suggested beside her.

“No, no, I am fine…” Gwen looked past Petra, once again taking in her bearings. She had become accustomed to the vital reinforcement provided by Amundj's mana in the last months or so. Having drained what her body had collated into the cube, it now felt as though she had suddenly become unwell, or fatigued, as though she was recovering from week-long flu.

“Gwen, what’s wrong?” Petra asked worriedly. “You don’t look fine at all.”

“Pats…” Gwen swallowed, forcing her quickened breath to return to a controlled cadence. “You were right, giving away the amulet... was a mistake.”

 

 

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Wutosama

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

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