Magister Birch furrowed his brows, much displeased, then looked toward Gwen Song for an answer. The challenge was valid, but the girl was well within her rights to decline. The etiquette was to accept regardless of one’s chances of victory. It was the pride of possessing courage, or at least respect, for walking one’s path of Spellcraft. What worried the Magister was that an accident, especially one that may mar the girl's health, would come back to haunt him. She was Wen's precious specimen, Dean Luo's prized pitbull and Klavdiya's darling. Should the hammer of blame come down, it wouldn't care for veracity, only that he was neglectful in protecting the collective benefit brought by the Void sorceress.
As for the challenger, Birch was confident enough in the Huashan Sect's skill to acknowledge that they had sufficient means for their champion to defeat Gwen Song even at her best.
So the question remained, should he intervene?
Magister Birch felt at a crossroads.
He knew that stopping the match would be the safest course of action.
But Birch couldn't help but feel that having the granddaughter of Guo Song taught a lesson wasn't a displeasing prospect. With his ability, he could save her at any time, with a little care, the girl should be perfectly safe.
Therefore, he would bequeath her the privilege of answering for herself, and see if the girl was as good as Lou touted her to be.
* * *
A few rows from the aggrandising Kusu - Lu Fung was likewise at a crossroad. If Dai’s object of desire became humiliated and indeed, injured by this upstart from the rural province of Huashan, it would surely ruin his elder brother's sport. There was a contradiction though, stepping in would countermand Dai's orders to leave Gwen Song alone.
As Lu hesitated, the opportunity passed him by.
Gwen Song apparently had designs of her own.
“I accept," she replied with nonchalance. "But not without condition.”
“State your condition then,” her opponent demanded.
“Promise me that you will leave me alone when you lose; that you and your Clan will not bother me incessantly. I lack the leisure to entertain sore losers.”
The gathered crowd of Conjurers sucked in a collective breath of cold air. The solemnity was held for several fragile seconds, then someone broke the tension by laughing loudly. Lu almost burst out in laughter himself. The Mao-bespoken confidence of the girl!
“You’ll regret that,” Kusu riposted, his face reddening.
"Watch your tongue! Tamade shabī!" the girl next to Kusu opened her mouth and let loose a torrent of abuse.
Lu watched Gwen Song exhale with exaggeration. What was her plan? Piss off her opponents? Make them lose their cool then lay an ambush?
"Care for a wager?"
"My life-" Kusu began.
"Nothing so serious. I mean this." Gwen Song produced ten currency cards that amounted to just over a thousand HDMs. "A little show of confidence. There has to be something for me to gain, you know. I can't fight unmotivated, what would be the point? You win, I lose. I win, I gain nothing. It's hardly fair."
A murmur of incredulity radiated from the centre of the crowd.
MAO'S BALLS, she's in for it now. Lu felt himself shivering with schadenfreude. These bumpkin rural Clanners fought duels with the same fervour they fought for the honour of their mothers. Gwen Song just offered to whore Kusu's mother for a thousand lousy HDMs. Prizefighting? What gave the girl the idea that Clanners would sully a duel with money? It was such a Western way of thinking that even Lu felt flat-footed.
Kusu's face said it all.
It was hilarious. Absolutely hilarious to Lu, that both sides lacked understanding on duelling etiquette. For Gwen, the correct thing to do was to get a friend or an ally to hedge on your behalf, not to insult your opponent to his face! As for Kusu, the norm was to make the duel worthwhile for your opponents, to tempt them to accept! That was the problem with bumpkins from the Frontiers. Lu shook his head in wonder. In their own little domains, they were Gods among insects, standing above the free-lance Mages and the NoMs. They were the quintessential big fish in a small pond, but in a place like Fudan, there were goliath gropers even in the shallows.
Lu pushed through the crowd, stopping a few bodies from the front row.
Magister Birch was going through the rules of the duel.
“Conjuration spells only. First to Shield Break. Respect your opponents. No attacking after forfeiture, or you will receive an academic warning. Gwen, you will have to conjure your Familiars when combat begins.”
Gwen Song nodded, then dismissed her Familiars.
The shields went up. The crowd then relocated around the tennis-sized open space.
“Ready?” Birch ordered Gwen and Kusu into separate mandala-arrays.
The first order of business was for the Mages to move via Teleportation Circles into the Arena without disorientation. If the Acolytes could not even handle that, then they deserved the trashing that followed.
Two bursts of silvery Conjuration appeared outside and inside the arena simultaneously, signalling the expedient entry of both contestants into the field.
The Void Sorceress appeared half a second faster than her opponent and Conjured a pulsating white-blue crystal right where her opponent was still manifesting.
As Kusu appeared, a thin Shield of semi-transparent ochre immediately went up as the Flashbang exploded, rocking the interior of the battlefield with a muffled ‘thump!’.
“You're too predictable! Dagger Swarm!”
The Huashan Clan, as far as Lu knew, was formerly a sword-saint Sect during the Song Dynasty. Much of their secret art was lost to the fall of Southern Song after the rise of the Yuan Dynasty, with all their Grandmasters and Masters dying in a single battle to protect the mount from the foreign invaders. To survive, they amalgamated old manuscripts with Spellcraft theory from the West, forming an original style of Magic that utilised physical objects and mystical forces. The Clan did have one or two notable young Mages, such as a girl prodigy in second-year, but their male disciples were just above-average but below the watermark for a tier 1 Clan like the Nantong Fungs.
The ‘daggers’ summoned by Kusu, therefore, were actual daggers inscribed with secret incantations. Lu watched as a multitude of flying, slicing, stabbing implements swirled around the young man like a flock of furious quicksilver swallows.
How would Gwen Song counter?
He received his answer in the form of a signature Dimension Door that erupted in a burst of void-ink, as though someone had violently landed in a puddle of tenebrous fluid. The resulting splash consumed a dozen or so of the blades from the swarm of a hundred, visibly reducing the volume of Kusu’s implements.
The Void Sorceress then appeared, as expected, behind the Huashan Mage.
No good. Lu thought. She really was too predictable. If even Lu could anticipate such a cliched move, then his rival from another Clan would be equally apt. Combat was everything to a Clanner, their lifeblood and creed.
No sooner had Gwen appeared did another spell manifest from Kusu, this time an iron web. It wasn’t a magical web but a physical set of balls-and-chains. The Huashan Mage was combining projectile-techniques with Conjure Object, Lu acknowledged, fascinated by the display.
He looked toward Magister Birch to see if the Adjudicator objected to the use of physical objects conjured from pocket dimensions. Birch’s expression remained impassive, and so Lu turned back to the action at hand.
“Caliban!” Gwen Song incanted. The slit of space between the Void and the Material Plane cleanly sliced the iron-mesh netting in twain as her creature began its ascension into the material world.
Despite the unexpected destruction of his snare, her opponent had evidently been waiting for her to summon Caliban. Kusu immediately responded by redirecting the “Dagger Swarm” to corner both caster and Familiar. A rain of daggers pelted down upon Sorceress and Familiar, pinging off Gwen’s Shield and gouging chunks from an enraged, semi-formed Caliban.
Excellent play! Lu couldn’t help but congratulate the Huashan upstart. He had placed Gwen in a terrible defensive position, while he himself was well provisioned to respond with an offence, defence, or evasion. Meanwhile, the Dagger Swarm continued, leaving white-streaks of impact marks all over the Void sorceress' semi-dome Shield.
Abjuration! Lu felt his chest tighten with the affirmation of Dai’s data. She really was versed in multiple Schools of Magic! One couldn’t really identify Divination usually, and Transmutation was universal enough that everyone knew ‘some’ form of utilitarian incantations - but only Abjuration was unique in the strength of its Shields. For a professed Conjurer-Evoker of Quasi-Elemental Lightning-and-Void, her Shield should have cracked after the first few seconds.
“Pin him down!” Lu heard Gwen cry out, seeing Gwen's face reddening with intensifying battle lust. The girl was beginning to take this seriously as well. “Caliban! Onslaught!”
Finally, the netherworld scorpioid slipped onto the battlefield. It immediately skittered on spindly legs from a canter to a trot, launching itself toward Kusu with the momentum of a runaway harvester.
“Guard!” Kusu fell back, sheltered by a defensive formation of daggers forming a shimmer wall of steel. “Misty Step!”
Again it would seem that both Mages, restricted to one School of Magic, had chosen evasion rather than defence. Gwen Song appeared just behind the wall of Steel, while Kusu’s Signature version of Dimension Door materialised the Huashan Mage where she had stood.
When Gwen Song appeared across the wall of steel with another murky burst, she again consumed about one-tenth of Kusu’s dagger with her Void-matter.
Kusu swore and retracted a portion of his Dagger Swarm, using the mass of metal as defensive barriers to repeal the monster leaping, bounding, screeching and slithering after him like a mad thing.
On the far side of the court, Gwen Song began to empower a complex Conjuration incantation.
Great Mao! Lu applauded internally. So that’s how she’s going to play it. Kusu was the more experienced tactician here, and the girl more often stepped into his anticipatory retaliation than not. If so, then one should consult Sun Tzu’s strategy of pushing through with brute force when the enemy perused an evasive stratagem.
Sensing Gwen’s terrific gathering of Lightning, Kusu risked direct assault from Caliban and teleported in a direct line through the creature, gambling on the fact that the Void beast could not tap into the Ethereal Plane.
"Burst of Steel!"
His gambit proved sound, and he emerged a safe distance away from Caliban, close enough to Gwen to let loose with a terrific hail of daggers. Gwen’s form became swallowed by a cloud of hacking, flying and stabbing blades, pinging off her Shield and making opaque the entire frontal semi-sphere.
Could her Shield hold out? Lu wondered. Maybe the girl was less a Sun-Tzu and more so just turtling up with the hopes of finishing off a slippery opponent with artillery. It was such a lousy tactic, but when it worked, it drove an opponent mad.
Unfortunately for Kusu, Gwen Song emerged unscathed. Even now, her Shield was healing itself rapidly, the opaque impact points returning to translucence.
“Wocao!” Lu swore. Kusu must be shitting himself. How was it possible that the girl was still holding up?! How thick was that barrier! She hadn't cheated and cast a dome-shaped Wall of Force, had she? What else was the girl hiding?
“SUMMON LESSER ELEMENTAL!” Gwen finished her spell.
It had taken her almost ten seconds, but she had finally connected the Sigil with its elaborate incantations, opening up a gateway to the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Lightning.
Kusu's Dagger Swarm formed a rotating wall of flying steel that warded him from all sides. The desperate Mages’ only chance of victory now lay in piercing Gwen's Shield in the next few seconds.
But would Gwen Song give the Huashan Mage that chance? Lu tried to anticipate the next moment. The girl's Shield was proving monstrous, almost as absurd as her Void-critter.
The auditorium began to glow - her scarabs were materialising rapidly.
The tiny Elementals first manifested as motes of glowing azure.
By twos and threes, then dozens, then hundreds, they filled the chamber; each hysterical and hungry for a target.
Sensing his imminent demise, Kusu forsook his Barrier and forced his remaining daggers into a piercing cone. In the next split-second, the cone launched itself with terrific force toward Gwen Song, becoming a shrieking vortex of grinding steel that penetrated the scarab swarm with impunity.
Brilliant move! The crowd launched into scattered applause amidst cries of surprise and dismay. Lu joined them. It was a strategically ingenious move that followed the Thirty-Six Tactics. To attack where your enemy must save, and your offensive becomes defence itself! Gwen Song had to remain still while channelling her Elemental swarm, meaning she had to halt her attack to Dimension Door. If she chose to both Shield and channel, it would greatly amplify mana-consumption, making her OOM. Either way, unless Gwen Song was willing to trade life for life, Kusu's strategy would succeed. It was a good psychological gamble as well, the young man had a good head on him. If Lu was Gwen, he would not risk mortal injury for something as inane as an exhibition match either.
At any rate, Lu glanced at Magister Birch, whose eyes flared with silvery Conjuration. The old man was ready to move one or the other out of harm's way.
To the confusion of all, the Void Sorceress sent her Familiar to stand in her stead. The scorpion reared itself, supported by a multitude of hind legs, revealing a second mouth below its cephalothorax.
A wave of revulsion spread through the crowd as the thing hissed and made that horrendous 'Shaaa!' cacophony. Its form became denser with Void-matter. Not even Lu, whose element countered the Negative-Plane, was exempt from the aura of existential vertigo expanding from Caliban.
Oh MAO! Lu's mouth opened in sync with Caliban's.
Impossibly, Caliban's second mouth unhinged itself with the effect of tearing itself apart. With a single gulp, it took the lion's share of the daggers, blade and hilt and all, then...
… then nothing. The rest of the daggers clattered to the floor.
For the scarabs had converged on Kusu, and the burst of brilliance was so bright as to smite the walls with blinding electricity.
Lu couldn't blame Magister Birch for not jumping in. He couldn't convince himself to teleport into a swarm of Lightning Scarabs either. Usually, two to three hundred was the limit. Just how much mana did Gwen Song put into a single summon?
“HALT! THE VICTOR IS GWEN SONG!”
The electrical hysteria of the flight of the Lightning Scarabs faded.
Kusu was unconscious on the ground, convulsing all over.
Gwen stood with Caliban unsummoned, her chest rising and falling thanks to the exertion of Caliban’s expectedly utilitarian Consume.
Kusu's siblings, the foul-mouthed sister and a middle-brother, leapt onto the stage with potions and restoratives. When they concluded that Kusu was merely momentarily stunned and knocked out, they turned upon Gwen.
“Chou-biaozi!” the girl cursed, sending out a pulse of powerful Earthen mana so palpable that Lu could've sworn the anti-magic tiles clattered. “I am going to make this as painful as possible.”
Now was the time to make his move! Lu was determined to seize the moment. Another opportunity may not come again.
He pushed himself from the crowd before Birch could tell the offending sister to stand down and leapt upon the stage.
“Shut your mouth! You shame the Clans with your rudeness!” Lu Fung, fourth in line to the Nantong Clan of Fung, arrived stage-left. “Have some humility, woman! Brother Kusu lost, and that's no one’s fault but his own, go and perfect your art instead of mewling like a loser!”
Lu’s appearance caused a stir in the crowd as extraordinary as Gwen’s defeat of the Huashan Mage. This wasn’t some hot-blooded youth standing up for a pretty girl - this was an inheriting member of one of the preeminent Clans in Shanghai! The patriarch of the Fung - Shen Fung, sat atop the Shanghai Security Council like a Land Deity! If need be, and if the Huashan ‘bumpkins’ chose to disagree with the Fungs, he could potentially have the lot of them evicted from Shanghai!
The girl’s face paled as soon as Lu castigated their presence, then slowly began to change into one of simmering scarlet rage.
“Brother Lu…” the girl said quietly, dangerously. "Please stand aside."
Who the fuck does this girl think she is? Lu was about to make a disparaging remark to inform her of her place when Kusu intervened.
“Brother Lu! Forgive Lulan, she’s still young!”
The defeated challenger, who had regained his consciousness, fell to one knee and held his head downward in a show of compliance. “Lulan! Get down!”
“Lulan, please! Listen to Brother Lu FUNG!”
The young man dragged his sister down to his height until they were both on one knee. If Kusu had paid any attention to his sister, he would have noted the pink froth issuing from her lips.
Lu meanwhile, felt as though a bucket of cold water had been poured over his head.
That's fucking Lulan Li?!
The girl looked not a day over fifteen.
Wasn't Lulan a second year? She wasn't even supposed to be in Shanghai!
He'd been told she had daggers for teeth and had eyes the hue of bloody wine. Wasn't she a six-foot, iron-blooded battle maniac with a musculature as taut as steel cabling?
Thank Mao for his stature as the inheriting disciple of the Fung Clan. Any other challenger would have been mopping their guts off the arena floor by now.
He felt afflicted by a severe case of the sweats.
"It's alright, Brother Kusu, Lulan just wants whats best for you. I understand." Lu Fung measured his words and spoke carefully, assuming the tone of a wise and benevolent elder Clan-brother. "The both of you, please stand. There is no shame in this defeat. You can try again next time. I am sure you will both grow from this experience. Kusu, you fought well. I can speak to your Elder on your behalf..."
* * *
Gwen felt the colour returning to her face. Thanks to their weekly feeding of Caliban, she could now sustain her Void spells with a far more substantial ‘tank’ of vitality. When Lu made her opponents genuflect though; her Divination Sigil felt as though a nail scraped across her spine.
She turned to face Lu, who nodded at her confidently with an expectant look of someone evidently feeling the euphoria of ‘Mission Accomplished”. She glanced at the girl on the floor and saw such malice rippling from the sorceress that it distorted the symmetry of the anti-magic tiles.
Kusu approached, bowed deeply, then produced 1000 HDM Crystals in assorted currency cards. It would appear the Huashan Sect was not one known for wealth.
"Your spoils, Miss Song. Thank you for the instruction," the young man spoke politely.
FUCK. Gwen forced a smile to her face and nodded at Kusu, thanking him.
She took the money. She might as well as this point.
From across the room, a pair of eyes the colour of rusty shiraz burned with a hatred that made Gwen's skin crawl. She didn't need her nail-on-blackboard premonition to tell that she just stepped into a pile of proverbial horse shit up to her thighs.
God damn it. She thought of Elvia’s Nightingale College tour de comfort.