During Orientation Week, the campus bloomed with hanging streamers, pop-up stands, student restaurants, duelling arenas, and even dubious student-sponsored "idol" shows carried over from Japan and South Korea.
The rationale was the all-consuming desire for Clubs to absorb new first-year students, for whom new blood and fresh meat meant the life and death of a club's funding.
She had made it no more than a dozen meters into the campus' main boulevard when catcalls of "Hey! Beauty! Over here! Join the [Insert name here] club!" resounded from all sides. Perhaps even more frighteningly, over-enthusiastic students daringly approached her with no concept of personal space, grabbing her arm and tugging on her dress.
"I'll be fine, thank you very much."
"No, thank you!"
"I am fine."
Her patience lasted all but three dozen stalls before she had to pull her arm forcibly away from zealous students eager to score a beauty. Whatever Gwen's background may be, whatever her skills, having a face like hers to post on the club poster was undoubtedly enough to drive up recruitment.
Once outside the crowd, Gwen took note of the Clubs, ranging from legitimate to frivolous. Even if she currently had no time for them, Gwen couldn't help her eyes becoming drawn to the more impressive displays.
Of curiosity was the Dungeoneering Committee, a Club organising monthly outings to Dungeons in the outer regions surrounding Shanghai and offering a yearly Advanced Dungeoneering Expedition to hitherto 'unexplored' areas suitable for junior Mages.
Besides the Dungeoneer's grand display of magical loot was the Fudan Competitive Duelling Club, renowned for its presence on the regional stage. The Duelling Club had a fine podium where two Mages, Fire against Earth, put on a spectacular exchange of offensive and defensive spells.
Further down from the main avenue and toward the Fudan Towers, she passed by a petting zoo of Magical Creatures set up by the Wildland Creature Appreciation Club. Looking at the variety of exotic and cuddly creatures, Gwen entertained the rapturous indulgence of molesting an assortment of fleecy, furry, fluffy things, all of which made her miss Elvia terribly.
Further along, mundane clubs lined the distance between the towering statue of Chairman Mao, many of which would not be out of place in Gwen's old world. The Discovery Club, the Media Club, Independent Research Club, the Management Club, Literature Club, Politics Club, and finally clubs for dance, music, theatre, chess, and art.
There were more semi-professional extra-curricular clubs also, such as the International Student's Activity Association, the Fudan Charity Consortium, the Student Helper's Committee, and something curiously called the Expansion Club, whatever that meant.
Gwen felt depleted by the end of the recruitment gauntlet, grumbling at the hour she would never get back. Nonetheless, she attended the Fudan Towers on the first day of Orientation Week for two specific reasons. One—today was the day she could formally apply to become a member of the Fudan Tower, which meant she could trade in her CCs for the LRC Crystal Projector in her apartment, and two: she had an appointment with the Dean, Jiang Luo, to oversee her academic prospects.
Once past the barricade of human bodies, she made her way up the levitation platform and entered the Student's Guidance Office, where an appointment for her to speak with her course coordinator awaited her. Gwen straightened her dress and sat, waiting patiently for her turn.
"Nihao." A breath of cold airbrushed her cheeks.
Gwen turned her head, startled at the sudden appearance of a ghostly visage beside her.
"Oh God- You startled me." She stilled her hammering heart.
The face that greeted Gwen was an exquisite doll. She recognised it as Ellen, an Air Spirit that Magister Luo was trying to temper into a more humanised existence.
"Master will see you now." Ellen bowed, then levitated through the lobby. Then, as if recalling her Master's command, she allowed her legs to properly manifest, landing on the floor with an audible clack.
"Dean Luo." Gwen bowed as she entered, instantly picking out his familiar face. There was another friend present as well, Magus Kumiko. The only stranger was a westerner whom she had never seen before. "Magus Kumiko. Sir. Greetings."
"Gwen! How wonderful to see you again." Magister Luo clapped his hands expansively. He pointed to a visitor's chair set up in front of them. "Come, sit. There's much to discuss."
Gwen demurely sat and positioned her legs at an angle to her audience. She placed both her hands on her lap, turned her torso slightly sideways, then flashed her audience a winning smile. Magister Luo looked the same as always, frank and friendly. Magus Kumiko sat beside and behind the remaining Mage, indicating that the Caucasian Mage was her superior.
"This is Magister Louis Birch, the head of our School of Conjuration. He's a specialist in manipulating Spatial Magic who had studied extensively in Europe and the Americas. He also held a short tenure working with the Iron Citadel, the Eastern European Dwarven Consortium."
Gwen paid her respects again while seated, tilting her head respectfully.
"So, you are our Void Mage," Magister Birch returned her greeting. "I have heard much about your progress from Magister Wen."
"She is too kind," Gwen humbly acknowledged the Magister's praise.
Unlike the academically inclined Magister Wen, Magister Birch was a Mage fastidious with his appearance. The man clothed himself in a suit tailored to fit his lanky frame, punctuated with a vest patterned and threaded with dusky gold runes and paired with a pair of scaly Oxfords that likewise hinted at expensive Enchantments. Above a tightly buttoned collar, the Master Conjurer's circle beard framed his grim lips. Beside the man, the casual and intimate seeming Dean Luo looked like a countryside uncle.
"I have your recommended courses for the upcoming Semester. As your major lies in Conjuration, I shall be your Course Coordinator," Magister Birch said with a voice that Gwen felt was unnecessarily stern. "Magister Wen assured me that you are ready to undertake the path to higher learning, despite your… Frontier public education."
Gwen ignored that little jab at her rural origins and received the document Ellen levitated through the air.
Supplementary Conjuration CJS1001
Bestiary and Care of Familiars FAM1021
Advanced Spell-shaping ASP1201
Utility Transmutation UTT2003
"Thirty-Six units of Spellcraft, Six Units of General Studies. Have you consulted with Magister Wen regarding your suitability for these courses, or would you like me to explain?"
"I am well informed, sir."
"Good. Your confidence becomes you, and I hope you will keep it as our lessons advance. In any case, well met, Miss Song." Magister Birch's lips tapered shut post sermon.
The man was overtly polite and just a little hostile, Gwen felt. Perhaps he was adverse to a student possessing the Void talent, she wondered, or had she offended him somehow?
Before Gwen could excuse herself, the Dean began to speak.
"Gwen, a moment if you will."
"You wish to apply for the International University Competition, correct? And would like to represent the Fudan team?"
"I do, Sir." Gwen nodded affirmatively.
Magister Birch raised a brow critically but remained silent.
"The current tryouts are in September, which is far too close for them to be feasible for you." Dean Luo informed her helpfully. "However, as you are a mid-year applicant, you should be well-positioned to apply for the 2004 competition. There is also the possibility of the 2005 September placement, or at worst, a 2006 placement should you delay your graduation until December."
"I understand, sir." Gwen brushed a strand of loose hair behind her ear before responding. "I shall endeavour to achieve my goal by next year."
"Ha!" Magister Luo applauded her. "Such confidence! I should warn you, though. Many of the top teams almost exclusively consist of multi-entry veterans."
"Hmmph!" Magister Birch snorted.
Dean Luo shot his tenured Magister an amused look before turning again to Gwen.
"But I have the utmost confidence in you, Miss Song. I am sure your grandmother is looking forward to you bearing Fudan's name."
"I won't let you down, Sir." Gwen ignored her future instructor's abrasive attitude. "I won't let Director Klavdiya down either."
The mention of her babulya's name seemed to touch a nerve in Magister Birch, and Gwen caught the Conjurer furrowing his brows dangerously, knitting them together with a passion that exceeded mere annoyance.
"The Songs are ever so confident," Magister Birch chided her coldly. "Overconfidence seems to be a family trait."
"Louis!" Dean Luo intoned in a low voice weighted with authority.
Magister Birch tensed, then resisted the Dean's displeasure with a projection of his own.
"I'll not show any favouritism," the Conjurer said suddenly. "You know that, right? Jiang? Certainly not to Miss Song here."
"I don't expect you to." Luo reached across and removed a piece of lint from Birch's shoulder. "She will surprise you."
"I will push her hard."
"And I expect nothing less."
Gwen sat quietly, still recovering from the stunning expulsion of mana that the duo had unleashed a moment prior.
"Your Grandmother," Magister Birch said to Gwen, his face softening. "How is she?"
"She's hale and happy," Gwen replied uncertainly, unsure what the Magister's relationship to her babulya might be. "Do you know my grandmother?"
Magister Birch nodded stiffly, his eyes suggesting that somehow, her question displeased him.
Dean Lou coughed loudly to break the uncomfortable silence.
"Gwen, you're a busy lass. You may go and do your other errands now. Remember, my office is always open!"
With Luo's blessing, Gwen hastily took her to leave, closing the double doors behind her.
What was all that? She pondered the abundance of expression that had passed over Magister Birch's face. Should it give her cause for concern? Perhaps she should contact her babulya.
With a ping! The doors to the levitation platform opened. Gwen stepped through the threshold and pressed the Glyph for level 3—Registration and Administration.
"Gwen!" Ellen's voice resounded an inch from her ear.
"Jesus Christ, Ellen!" Gwen almost jumped from the Levitation platform when Ellen materialised.
"Do you have it?"
"Do I have what?"
"Essence!" Ellen poked a finger timidly at Gwen's heart, pressing into her bosom. "Lea said you possess a tasty druidic essence."
Feeling like a dealer in the night, Gwen double-checked that they were, in fact, alone; then quickly congealed a droplet of her Druidic Essence.
"Alright, let's make this quick."
She had wanted to dribble a drop into Ellen's mouth, but Ellen instead guided Gwen's hand into her chest, where she felt a frigid swirl of Elemental Air so dense as to induce hypothermia in her fingers.
"Ah—" Ellen's morphic form momentarily lost its shape before reforming itself. "Thank you! I enjoyed that very much."
"Anytime." Gwen checked to ensure that she was still in possession of her extremities. Thankfully, her fingers remained responsive.
"Okay! Bye! Love you!"
Ellen dissipated in a burst of quicksilver Conjuration.
A Familiar who can teleport at will! Gwen couldn't help but be impressed. She wondered if Caliban or Ariel would ever get to the stage where they could function independently and if Ellen could help. At any rate, Gwen was not opposed to luring a few wayward Familiars with her Essence candy van.
"It's all done! Welcome to Fudan, Miss Song." The woman at the counter smiled amiably, and Gwen returned the gesture with a smile of her own.
Gingerly, she took her cards, then retreated to a well-lit window to inspect her loot.
Public Practice of Magic ID:: 9840598 001
Evocation (3), Conjuration (4), Divination (1), Transmutation (1), Abjuration (1)
Quasi-Elemental :: Lightning :: Void
Class Permit (A)
Her Public Practice Licence received an upgrade from B to A, implying she could incant Spells up to tier 6 when outside the city's magic exclusion zones. Without a higher-tier licence, destructive magic within the metropolis remained contentiously glued to internal policing.
She checked her Student Card.
Fudan University Student Card
LOI:: China, Shanghai
SID: 12598 S0203
POB: Sydney, Australia
YOA: S2 2003
LCSS:: 2003-2006 (M) (Full)
Her card was a crystalline rectangle with the emerald watermark of Fudan's Qin-Dynasty logo embossed behind her name. There was also an unflattering picture of her face which projected an Illusion when injected with mana.
The Administration lobby was like any other in the university, large and spacious, open planned with large waiting areas prefacing a dozen counters, behind which were data and file stores. Lacking networking technologies, the need for file storage space was immense. Even with the advent of imported American Magitech, the lack of data-servers in this world severely limited the volume and detail of stored information.
Watching the row after row of storage, Gwen recalled the infamous East Berlin warehouses with files on nearly every German Democratic Republic citizen. Without Divination, Gwen concluded, the entire system would be untenable. Maybe, she pondered, there was a Spell for that.
With her IDs done, it was time to visit the Tower proper. Gwen proceeded to the lobby of the Guanhua Building, then took one of the six levitation platforms ascending into the Fudan Towers.
Though seen by outsiders as a single Tower, the faux-Factions of Fudan played a significant role in shaping the allegiances of their students. Guanhua Tower 1, commonly known as T1, was the busier of the two, whose students came from backgrounds that inevitably drove them to select the PLA Tower. T2, meanwhile, was a gathering place for self-proclaimed adherents to the Pudong Tower, as well as a faction of freebooters who dreamt, often naively so, that Spellcraft was above politics.
It was T2 that Gwen ventured into, exiting on the 25th level into a lobby that overlooked the surrounding landscape. From the south side of its thickly paned windows, Gwen could see her apartment block stretching down the length of Guoding Avenue.
She took a ticket and waited, examining the busy lobby and the bubble-be milling of its busy staff. The place resembled a bank. There were counters for simple transactions, rooms for private consultations, and a few conference chambers with large oval tables.
Her's was a simple transaction, meaning her ticket was up very quickly.
"Hi, here's my card." Gwen waited while the young woman ran her newly minted identification for forgeries.
"Your balance is 151 CCs." the young woman announced. "What would you like, Miss Song?"
"I would like an LRC Projector installed in my place of residence. One that will enable private conference with a friend in England," Gwen informed the girl.
"Would you like to loan or own?"
"What's the difference?"
"To own is 50 CCs, including a Tower technician installing the device. To loan is 15CCs plus 1CC per month, with a minimum hire of six months for fixed installations."
Gwen quickly did the math. If she remained in Fudan for three years, it might be worthwhile to buy, but there was merit in loaning as well. Overheads, sunk costs, depreciation and potential lost investments from spending too many CCs at once; she quickly ran the numbers through her head.
"Can I return a purchased device for CCs?"
"No, ma'am, you may not."
"Alright, I'll loan then, thanks."
"No problems. Let me get the slates. Please fill in forms 1B and 23C." The girl returned a moment later, and Gwen completed the documentation.
"Is Friday okay for the technician to install? Your serviceman will be a certified Pudong Tower affiliate."
"That's fine," Gwen thanked the counter-clerk.
"Very good. The minimum hire period is six months. I will deduct 21 CCs, leaving you with 130 CCs. I've booked for installation within two days; please be home between 9 AM and noon. Is there anything else I can help you with today?"
"No, thank you."
"Thank you, Ma'am. Please feel free to browse the T2 CC Community Request Board. Have a nice day."
Gwen left the peppy administrator and sauntered over to a panoramic display that ran the length of the back wall with thirty-odd meters of projections from floor to ceiling.
Silent, she read the requests to herself.
"Looking for Abjurer of at least tier 6 and good reputation to join a party for Taishan's Emerald Forest Dungeon, minimum 100 CCs and HDMs for the right applicaant. Compatibility interview and training session essential. Original party members will vote on accepting or rejecting the applicant."
"35 CCs reward for information on Dragonkin in the Huashan region HS32B. Seeking type, size, age, gender, and colour. Half payment now, half on confirmation."
"Looking to collect specimens of Wood Elementals, Nymphs, Dryads, Sprites. Exchanging between 10 CCs to 200 CCs. Offer lasts until CCs spent."
She also saw a few in red.
"URGENT:: Seeking Diviners who can aid with discerning whereabouts of Li Mingyue, a charlatan who has defrauded my brother, the Magus Fu Weiwei. 10 CCs for proof of Li's location. 50 CCs for information leading to capture. 150 CCs for Li brought in alive."
A projection crystal attached to the manhunt notice displayed the Mage known as Li Mingyue.
Gwen read another:
"URGENT:: Tier 5 to 7 Adventuring Party needed to reclaim Zhongming Island Mining Facility 11B-43QM. An amphibian infestation has halted operations. Bounty dispensed by Provincial governor offering 2 CCs per head and 50 CCs for total restoration of the mine. The deadline is July 10th, after which the PLA will assume control of operations. A cleric capable of Dispel Disease and Poison is essential."
By invoking the Glyph attached to each notice, the viewer may trigger the contact details of each quest.
Gwen tried to activate one of the glyphs to no avail, forcing her to step back and watch the others.
One Mage approached the board, read a notice, then tapped a card against the quest glyph. A small Mandala became visible, then the Mage passed the card through the glowing array and went his merry way.
My Adventure Permit! Gwen realised. She quickly materialised her card.
Multi-Pass Adventuring Permit
LOI:: China, Shanghai
PPM: 9840598 001
Eyes: Hazel - Green
Hair: Black (Warm)
Access Rank: E
Quest Attainment: N/A
Gwen took another ticket and returned to the counter.
"Can I get my card updated here?"
"Of course, we can validate it for you via S-C Adventure Central Office. Do you have a few moments?"
Gwen retrieved her card a quarter of an hour later. She noticed that there were now subtle changes.
Multi-Pass Adventuring Permit
LOI:: China, Shanghai
PPM: 9840598 001
Eyes: Hazel - Green
Hair: Black (Warm)
Access Rank: E+
Quest Attainment: Hengsha Gila Rift (S)
Well, well, she was 1 CM taller, Gwen mused.
The attendant explained that the plus behind the E meant that though Gwen is not eligible for D-rank quests alone, she was considered proficient enough to join a party for D-rank quests. When she further inquired about what the Ranks implied, the clerk informed her that the Tower system ranked Mage's capabilities by reviewing their Quest completion and then assigning a hidden score that allowed one to rank up. Rank is tied to Spellcraft proficiency, naturally, but it is also a measure of one's problem solving, negotiation, charisma, and other abilities that aided in resolving a quest.
"Say, out of curiosity. Do you know a Mage called Marong? From the House of M?" Gwen enquired inconspicuously.
"Magus Marong?" the clerk mused. "The Poof and Puff? We know of him, yes."
"What rank is he?"
"A publically available data sheet is available for 1 CC, Ma'am."
"I just need an idea of what rank he is."
"The Puff Duo is renowned for Magus Marong's versatility," the clerk explained. "In Peking, the Magus had undertaken many quests successfully; his rank is B. I have a list of his feats and spell-list if you like, it's..."
"1 CC, I know," Gwen gave her thanks. "Thank you for your time."
"Happy to be of service!"
With all her errand done, she now had time to explore the campus a bit before returning to the lab.
Glancing at her fellow students' bright and happy faces, Gwen couldn't help but feel her heart soar for what was to come.
University! Tertiary Education! Mastery of Spellcraft!
Just four more days and her academic odyssey would begin!