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A note from Wutosama

Small cliff ahead 

Next CH pretty quick prolly in a day or two, much combat. 


Week 5 - Supplementary Bestiary lesson.

The junior Conjurer's Familiars were being put to task on hapless Wildland summons.

One may call it cruel that Instructor Chen arranged for creatures to be used as instructional specimens, but the Master Conjurer reminded them that one couldn't make delicious Wildland omelette rice without cracking a hapless Cockatrice's innocent egg.

The idea was to combine two lessons in one. The junior Creature Mages got to learn about their pet's strengths and weaknesses while simultaneously discovering the physiological and biological statures of their future enemies.

For Wanli the Lighting-Hawk, Chen advised on air superiority, tactical use of blindsides, and CQB using Lightning's passive paralysis, impressing even the haughty Lu Fung.

For Eunae, Chen informed ways Luyi could set root-snares, grow barriers and platforms, and take advantage of Eunae's positive energy to gain immense vitality and fortitude. 

Gwen made mental notes as others received their inputs. As a testament to Chen's expertise, each piece of advice was tailored to a Familiar’s particularity.

When he got to Gwen, he asked first for Ariel, the model marten.

"Wang! Bring in D-5!" Chen yelled at a troop of Conjurers operating the Summoning Circle.

A large and ferocious Wildland boar materialised. It immediately launched itself furiously at the Shields, leaving behind white-scars where the walls of force reconstituted. From the thick carapace of shale and clay on its flank, it was evidently a spawn of elemental Earth.

"Alright, Gwen, send Ariel in."

"Ariel!" Gwen affirmed her instructor's command, then coalesced her Familiar with a bolt of ionised lightning. Ariel emerged in its combat form, transforming into a six-foot silvery Mongoose equipped with two spiralled horns each a foot long.

Following Chen’s directions, Ariel kited the boar, gouging it with its claws, teeth and horns, slowly wearing the tank-like monstrosity down with its hasted agility.

Chen watched Ariel's performance with evident satisfaction.

“You should get ready for the killing blow," he advised. "Do you have any localised AOE Lightning spells? Ideally something volatile and explosive, midrange, with high penetrative power?"

“No, Sir,” Gwen explained that rather than learning new spells, she was trying to punch through to tier 4, where spells like Wall of Fire and Blizzard became available.

“Forget those wide range AOEs, my advice is that you acquire Elemental Sphere,” Chen explained. “Rather than a line attack Lightning Bolt, Lightning Sphere manifest first as a swirl of energy in a dome-like sphere, not unlike a ball-cyclone with you at its 'eye', then explodes outwards as a short-range AOE.”

"That sounds immensely useful, Sir."

"I should think so. It's a signature spell of the late Magister Einar Larsen. He was a very well known master of the Lightning Element."

"How should I learn such a spell?" Gwen requested humbly. "Surely, one has to be well connected."

“It's nothing so serious. You can trade 36 CCs for it. Magister Larsen released his spells into the Tower's public domain when he passed,” Chen informed her. “I mention this because the spell is perfect for your Ariel's Evocation-channel ability. It could serve as an offensive Shielding, a mid-range AOE, and a Shield-breaker.”

“I shall consider the recommendation, Sir,” thanking her instructor, Gwen tried to picture the spell and its many applications. It was true that she lacked AOEs in her Evocation repertoire; on paper, the tier 4 incantation fit her current needs like a shoe. Besides, what destructive potential could a Barbanginy-Sphere bring? Just trying to envision the ultraviolence of such a spell was giving her shivers.

Then there was also the Void variety - though Magister Wen had forewarned that all Void-AOE was forbidden until her affinity could be persuaded to grow beyond tier 5.

Meanwhile, the gladiatorial battle in the cage had come to an end. The boar was on its last legs.

“EEEeeee! Eee!”
"SQEEEeee!"

Ariel impaled the boar's flanks.

“Lightning Bolt!” Gwen channelled her Evocation staple and watched the boar became inundated with cobalt-green plasma. The blast flung the pig-beast against the force barrier until it was medium rare and smoking from both eye-sockets.

Gwen breathed out, retrieving Ariel. Evocation-Conjuration proved an excellent combination, her mana pool had barely dipped.

“Wonderful,” Chen clapped. “Excellent work.”

Caliban was next.

"Wang! B-7!"

The next monster materialised - a giant hyena the size of a horse. Startlingly, a sudden stench of putrid decay pervaded the floor.

“Mao!” The junior Mages wrinkled their nose.
“Wocao! What is that thing?”
“Is it Undead?”
“It’s a Corpse-fed!”

A Corpse-fed Hyena.

Gwen had read about such creatures. In the north, where the undead gathered, the fauna had mutated to become capable of feeding off the necrotic energies seeping from the tombs. Predators that once hunted live prey now hunted the dead - becoming fearsome carrion-carnivores capable of carrying plagues, devouring decay, and growing stronger by killing and consuming higher-level Undead.

She wasn’t sure why there was a hyaena in Asian-Major, but that hardly mattered now. Chen had prepared something incredibly formidable for Caliban. Ironically, if it had been Ariel, its Lightning would have naturally suppressed the Necrotic energy, but with Caliban, Gwen honestly had no idea. It wasn’t as though she’d fought Demi-Undead before.

Chen indicated for Gwen to proceed.

“I can banish it at a moment’s notice. Not to worry,” Gwen's instructor informed her. “Send in your pet. It should be immune to Vitality Drain anyway.”

That was news to Gwen. She warily regarded the prowling fiend, even now seeking a weakness in the Force Barrier, then picked a spot on the far side. The war-dog looked strong; thanks to its Necrotic blessing, it was likely incredibly resilient to injury. As with the boar, the best way to grind down a creature with high constitution and strength was with agility and haste.

“Caliban!” Gwen called for her Familiar to manifest within the arena, bypassing her Sustenance limiter. “Spider form!”

When Caliban leapt from the slit between the Material and the Void, it was indeed in its multi-legged form. Gwen had come to acknowledge that so long as she 'willed' a particular form, it was possible to coax Caliban to follow suit. Petra once pointed out that a creature with five pairs of legs, pincers and a tail should belong to the Order Scorpiones, but Gwen preferred 'spider' as the origin of Caliban’s morphic shape was initially an arachnid.

Gwen circulated a chunk of druidic-vitality into herself as her Familiar took its pound of flesh, empowering Caliban with supernatural haste and a frenzied desire for destruction. As Caliban became pumped full of void-rich mana, the observing crowd felt a wave of nausea.

“Onslaught!” Gwen mouthed soundlessly.

“SCREEEEeeeee!!”

Her spider launched itself like a bolt of black lightning.

The hyena appeared first intimidated by a creature like Caliban, but its wariness vaporised as Caliban attacked. Sidestepping expertly, it extended its elongated neck with the agility of a viper and attempted to catch one of Caliban’s foreclaws.

“Jump!” Chen commanded.

Gwen willed Caliban to change its trajectory by leaping into the air.

“Tail Spear!” Chen directed.

The hyena missed its first bite as Caliban, too quick for the horse-sized dog, kicked off the force-wall and stabbed it on the upper flank with its barbed tail, sending out a mist of dark ichor as a chunk of necrotic flesh came away.

“Oh MAO!”
"Bleargh!"
A few of the Conjurers fell to the odious assault.

Eunae buried her face into Luyi's flank while her doe quivered defiantly against the fiendish terror, protecting its Mistress.

The hyena snapped at Caliban and caught it in its maw, crushing it effortlessly. The loss of a limb, however, had no impact on a creature without nerves or organs like Caliban. Gwen's spider fiend then fell upon the yelping, hapless dog with the ferocity of a combine-harvester.

The first limb struck, then another and another and another, until its three pairs of appendages became a blur. The corpse-eating dog instantly became a spray of vivisected flesh.

“WOCAONIMA!”
“Cao - BLEARGH!”
“Garrgh!”
“Oh G-“

The odour flooded the room and all the gathered Mages, Gwen included, began to clear their meals onto the floor. The stench was indefinable, it was fetid death and faecal matter, half-digested flesh mixed with the smell of pus and gangrene.

Only Chen stood without so much as wrinkling his nose.
The hyena disappeared in a burst of silver-white energy.
The Wall of Force went down. The vents powered up.

“What are you-“ someone cried out in alarm.

Caliban clattered forth, covered in pieces of necrotic carrion; its carapace a snail-sheen of foul fat and decomposing excrement.

“Take it all in!!” Chen laughed at the students fleeing the scene but trapped by the bulkheads. Even Gwen was on her knees, regretting her last breath of air. Eunae buried her face so far into Luyi it looked as though the Korean Cleric had melded with her fawn face-first.

“That’s the scent of the Northern Front! Learn to love it! For that’s the smell of an undead filled battlefield! Let this be a lesson!”

Caliban moved for its mistress. With a yelp and a gag, Gwen dismissed it in an instant.

* * *

Gwen felt as though she had become terribly ill the same evening, but according to Magister Wen, that was pathologically impossible so long as she had druidic essences circulating her body. For all intents and purposes, her body was immune to mundane infections. For her to be stricken, the pathogen would have to be magical or genuinely virulent.

All she could do then, was bath herself in lavender-scented bathwater in an attempt to disguise the phantom stench. The damned odour was so intense that she couldn’t even stomach the thought of summoning Caliban, despite sorcerously bathing it with magic.

That night, Gwen slept fitfully, unable to persuade her brain that she was not smelling the scent of a ceiling full of dead rats decaying in the mattress.

* * *

Gwen decided to invest in a new Signature Spell.

After consulting with Petra and Magister Wen, it was agreed that 36 CCs for the tier 4 Elemental Sphere was a viable option for her Evocation development.

She would struggle with it until she reached the expertise necessary to use the spell in combat, but it didn’t mean she couldn’t employ the inherent complexity of the Incantation to mill out the proficiency of her Evocation Sigil. By training with it, she could kill two birds with one Elemental Sphere.

The acquisition was simpler than she had imagined.

A trip to T2 of the Fudan Towers gave her a script. Then a visit to the Reserved section of Fudan University Library was all it took for her to return with an inscribed scroll. Like a magic item, the manuscript was attuned to herself, requiring her student card to access. She also received a script that could be exchanged with an Instructor for a private lesson. After taking stock of her receipts, she was left with 94 CCs.

“What do people do about plagiarism? Or piracy?” Gwen asked Petra when they met for lunch.

“Piracy?” Petra chuckled. “What does this have to do with robbery on the high seas?”

“…” Gwen opted for a less abstract vernacular. “Like what if I wanted to teach you this spell?”

“You could try.” Petra grinned dangerously. “It's against the academic etiquette though.”

“What's the damage?”

“Penalty from the Tower, ire from other Mages, excommunication from your Clan or House. Its serious enough to make you a public pariah. Learning public domain spells with CCs is far more convenient than trying to thieve them. Through the Tower, your acquisitions are sanctioned and safe; your mastery publicly acknowledged. If one day, you’re willing to give up a Signature Spell of your own to the public domain as the progenitor - you or your Estate would receive CCs every time someone learns it.”

Excommunication - Gwen pondered the severity of such a thing. The rewards for obeying the rules far outweigh the benefits of illicit learning. She supposed such a system was sufficiently robust for the majority of Spellcraft society. It wasn’t as though roguish Outland Mages living in the Wildlands bothered with Tower etiquette at any rate; nor would a Clan or Sect give up its secrets to anyone but an inheriting member.

“I understand.” Gwen played with her Storage Ring contemplatively. “I’ll be down at the Training Hall if anyone asks.”


* * *


It took another three nights for the illusory stench of the Corpse-fed Hyena to fade from Gwen’s consciousness. In the meanwhile, in preparation for Gwen’s excursion at District 108 and 35, Magister Wen recommended Gwen take her new items - the Chameleon Cloak and her Boots of Flying, to the Training Hall and book a session with the Field Instructors there.

“Why? Is the excursion not a sightseeing tour?” Gwen questioned her mentor.

Magister Wen gave her a secretive smile.

“Professor Ma will keep it interesting for you young Mages. There’s nothing better than a dose of reality to get the Management students invested in the course.”

Speaking of 'doses of reality', Gwen couldn't help but recall when Mark Chandler had sent her into Blackheath.

At first, she had imagined that her Master’s old Diviner war-buddy was also testing her, teasing her with the reality of poverty and circumstance the NoMs faced. But it was all a ruse to gather evidence for his own hypothesis against her Master, Henry Kilroy. Hopefully this time, Gwen thought to herself. With a whole University backing her, her misadventure wouldn’t deviate too much from the planned tour.

The PLA, perhaps mindful of their limited influence in Fudan, had assigned military Instructors to the Training Hall who students could employ. Many of the instructors were surviving Mages from Frontier conflicts who could no longer return to the front in a capacity required by the military, but whose experience was too precious to be wasted.

Gwen fell under the tutelage of a one such flight Mage named Staff-Sergeant Bao Yan, a clean-cut, middle-aged veteran missing a hand and using a prosthetic leg. With patience, she informed him that she was in the process of learning her Utilitarian Flight spell, but had an excursion to the NoM Districts in a week or so.

“That’s fine, you’ll be knotting the air in no time,” the Instructor smirked. “Let’s see your form.”

Gwen first ensured her tunic was adequately fastened; she had yet to purchase her wardrobe for flight and would like to avoid a Marilyn Monroe situation. Her current issue was that her second-hand Boots of Flying had to be worn against her skin.

To Gwen, Alesia’s vintage training boots spoke volumes about her intrepid teenage years. When Gwen first tried them on, the thigh-high leather pulled just above her knees and rode three inches up her thigh. As a mid-tier Magic Item of ‘rare’ scarcity from the 90s, the boots were not enchanted to conform to new wearers and were only serviceable because Gwen and her sister-in-craft were physiologically alike, that and the boots were double-laced to allow for significant expansion and contraction. Gwen had to admit that in many ways, the Scarlet Sorceress was more ‘womanly’ than her sister-in-craft, and the boots had to be laced snug as a corset to adhere to her skin.

As a pairing, shorts were out of the question, so she settled on a ‘skort’, a pair of skirt-cum-shorts with ample coverage, which ensured unity of ergonomic mobility and aesthetic modesty. For up top, she could wear whatever she wished, though her choice of attire was currently dictated by the Chameleon Cloak. It made her look ridiculous. From above, she was invisible, likewise if she crouched and folded her legs in the foetal position. Standing before a mirror though, she resembled a free-floating face resting above a pair of leggy, laced leather boots.

“You’re not going to need that in an urban space. Register and apply for a full Optic-Camo cloak with CCs if you really want to be discrete,” Lian advised. “Though you better not get caught by the Tower’s Arbitrators or the MSS if you’re using it inside the city.”

“How useful is Opti-Camo?” Gwen enquired. If wasn't as though her Familiars or her Magic were subtle. In fact, they were eye-catching and very, very loud.

Lian snorted.

“Extremely! It's life or death out there in the Wildlands. First-strike is winning or losing! You think Optic-Camo grows on trees? Mao knows how you even got your hands on one. You from an old military family or what?”

“Something like that.” Gwen nodded.

“You better take care of it, girl. Not many of those are left in civilian hands.”

Gwen carefully folded the cloak and stored it in her ring.

“Your pets going to be a problem?” The Instructor pointed a thumb at Caliban and Ariel.

“They’ll be fine so long as they’re unmolested, Sir,” Gwen answered. “They’re tagged to my bangle, they’ll be no trouble.”

The instructor's attitude brightened considerably after noting her collection of rare items. There were three rings on her fingers, two gemstone-rings with enchantments accompanied by a nondescript copper band. The girl was, in his eyes, decked out.

“You a Clanner? You look like a Young Lady.”

“I am…” Gwen thought about her answer, then replied cryptically. “… connected.”

“I’ll say,” Lian replied thoughtfully. “Let’s begin with levitation exercises. What’s the crystal-consumption rate on those?”

“It’s a user-model.” Gwen kicked with one foot and rose an inch into the air, wobbling as she held her balance in check.

“Not bad, a classic archetype,” the Instructor nodded and activated his own Flight incantation, lifting into the air. Gwen couldn’t help but notice the man’s prosthetics dangled. “Make a danger sign when you’re about to OOM.”

“Yessir,” Gwen replied.

Unlike the Mage-trained Flight spell, the lift provided by the boots had capped agility and velocity. Transmutation Mages who specialised in Flight, especially Mages attuned to Air, could move at four to five times the pace and coordination of Mages not attuned to Transmutation. Given time and training, the Air-affiliated Gwen could arguably fly faster and more proficiently than even Alesia, but that would be many years in the making. It was also the reason why the dual-elementalist Acolyte, Kitty, was deemed a prodigy. Given time to grow, her affinity with Air and Ice, Evocation and Transmutation would make her an elemental terror, the crème de la crème of the Aerial Battle Mage regiment, a Valkyrie of Ice.

The Instructor indicated toward two illusory markers in bright orange overhead.

“Do not venture past the training Zone. Shanghai is a No-Fly. We’ll be making basic zig-zags on a 2D plane, then move onto vertical climbs.”

“Yessir.”

Instructor Lian led the way as Gwen followed unsteadily. The grace of moving in three dimensions had little to do with an individual’s natural agility, and all Gwen could do was try to acclimatise herself while battling the constant nausea of vertigo.


* * *

Week 6, University Mid-Term.

Mid-terms meant exams, excursions and exercises; after which was the Week 7 mid-term break.

Gwen had Practicals for Conjuration and Evocation, a written exam for Economics, and finally the excursion with James Ma’s Management course. During their Thursday lecture, Ma mentioned that sixty-four individuals would be participating across seven Districts and that the students could arrange their own groups and sub-groups as they pleased, down to a minimum of two individuals. District 35 would entertain the lot of them, while their subsequent visit to Districts 108 - 114 would only take up to five Mages per zone.

Naturally, her group would at best consist of Richard, Mayuree, Kitty and herself. At worst, it would be Richard and herself.

Well, I’ll be damned… Gwen thought about Wen's helpful foreshadowing. She could hardly wait for their first outing, not to mention her first visit to a NoM Hive City in a tier 1 capital. She had done slum tours in her old world before - 'the grand snob', her friends called it. Would the Hives be like the Rocinha Favela before the World Cup pushed through? Or perhaps the industrious gutter-slums of Mumbai? Could it exceed the time she was in Khayelitsha, laying over on the way to a two-week safari?

But first, her Practical Exams.

Conjuration took place underneath the Arena, where Gwen had her Bestiary classes. Students had to demonstrate their heightened proficiency in Combat, Translocation, and Conjure Object.

Combat was simple enough. Students could choose to square off against Summoned Monsters, Instructors, or each other. Gwen was confident she could take a tier 5 to 6 creature without incident.

Transportation involved moving cubes of cargo ranging from fragile crystal to a slab of lead from one end of the enormous stadium to another by attuning with pre-inscribed Teleportation portals. For several of the talented students, they were capable of drawing their own Teleportation Circle at tier 5, and could thus opt to use their personalised Mandala array. Gwen, still entrenched halfway, would have to use a pre-prepared one.

Finally, Conjure Object was an exercise in which items stored in a pocket dimension had to be conjured by the students onto a platform. It was a simple cantrip which any Mage in possession of a Storage Ring used daily; though the variability of mana grew exponentially with heavier, larger, and denser objects.

Despite the simplicity of the exam, however, she felt an oppressive unease as she walked among the crowd. A tingling in the spine that warned her of crisis, but Gwen had anticipated that; she was, after all, here to demonstrate her prowess, and there were immutable risks in combat that went beyond skill and expertise.

Standing almost half a head taller than the crowd in her pump combat boots, she scanned the crowd with her eyes, wondering why there was this uncomfortable feeling that she was being intently watched.


* * *

"I think she sees us," Lulan Li murmured to her dearest elder-brother, the corner of her lip curling belligerently as she observed the Void Sorceress scanning the room. Even from this distance, Gwen Song's absurdly high yanzhi was pissing Lulan off.

She had wanted to challenge and beat down the skanky whore for weeks now, but each time her eldest brother stood in her way.

"You're a second year," he told her. "What would people think of our Clan? What would people think of me, if you had to save my face in my stead?"

Lulan puffed her cheeks churlishly.

Big brother was right of course, but Lulan wouldn't have minded if she took on that burden. If anyone dared to call Kusu a 'soft rice eater', she would break every bone in their body.

"She just saw me!" Lulan exclaimed excitedly.

"Steady now, you don't want to frighten her," Kusu replied.

"She's strong." Hui, her middle brother who was gifted in Divination, whispered back in hushed tones. "Are you sure we should be doing this? What about her backers?"

"Of course!" Lulan snapped at Hui, the pressure of her bearing making him wince. She was his younger sister, but Lulan was many magnitudes his aptitude, not to mention half of his talents were in Divination. "This upstart has had her day for too long. We've left her alone until now, but as I said, I have it on good authority that she's no longer an inheriting part of the Song. Their Patriarch couldn't care less what happens to her. Hee hee, we're probably doing the old man a favour."

"Still, don't underestimate an LCSS candidate, she did get the full scholar-"

"She got in because of her connections!" Lulan seethed at her middle brother. "You think big-brother Kusu would lose his full-scholarship to a biaozi like her? We'll have her know she's dug her own grave."

"Shut it, the both of you," Kusu silenced the both of them. "It's starting. I am going to announce my challenge."

"Alright, big brother, you show that Guan-er-dai the power of someone who has no need to cling to the Dean's lap!" Lulan felt her heart soar. Finally, it was time to vindicate the shame of her most talented eldest brother losing his full scholarship to some skinny bitch from the Frontier!

* * *

Gwen's eyes passed over the familiar faces of a group of Mages with faces so similar that they were unmistakably related. One of them, the girl, glared at her with a hunger that was palpable from across the room.

One of them, the eldest and who looked like the leader, stepped forward.

"HALT! I declare a spar against the acolyte Gwen Song!"

The Conjuration cohort parted, revealing to everyone but Gwen's surprise, the Clan Mages who’d ambushed and mocked her outside the training hall weeks prior. She wasn't sure if she had 'beef' with them, but she’d avoided them since. The way they presented themselves clearly looked as though they would not take 'no' for an answer, and Gwen almost wondered if refusing just to troll them would be worth the effort.

Still, it was better they called her out now rather than in the privacy of her training sessions. So long as they fought in public, Gwen felt that she could handle them.

The young man who stepped forward was a little shorter than her, with a sharply chiselled face that would have been cruel but for his bright and intelligent eyes. He wasn't a mean looking sort, possessing a sort of bookish, scholarly charm that was common amongst the ethnic Han students in Fudan.

“I, Kusu Li of the Huashan Sect, wish to challenge Gwen Song of the House of Song to a duel,” The young man declared formally, then bowed. "Please accept my duel."

A Clanner. Gwen felt ambivalent about his challenge. It wasn't good to get involved with the Clans.

“Do you accept, Gwen Song?” he repeated himself, raising his head.

Gwen’s familiars began to hiss and growl menacingly. Her 'Mongolian Death Worm' opened up its carapace and lashed out with pink-and-cobalt tentacles, while her marten struck out its tongue rudely. It was an embarrassing display, to say the least.

Gwen weighed her options. She refused to fight unless victory offered her a tangible benefit. There was no shame being pragmatic and realpolitik with one's enemies. She needed crystals, many, many crystals, to offset her phone - her LRC Projector costs.

To fight, or not to fight: that was an ambivalent question, but to profit?

Humans die for riches, and birds risk beak and claw for feed.

Now there was a risk she was willing to take.

 

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