Louis Birch gave Gwen a grading of A and told her she needn’t attempt the other exercises. Instead, he sent her away to the infirmary, under the supervision of the unexpectedly helpful Lu Fung. He wasn’t exactly sure what business the junior Conjurer had, but Birch's business ended at the Lecture hall's entrance.
It was a wise decision not to intervene, he thought to himself. What foresight. As expected, Gwen Song was trouble personified.
“Kusu, are you alright?” Birch turned to the other party, assuming the role of a caring mentor. He wasn't worried about Kusu's health; the young man's pride was more wounded than his body. He was more concerned about what may come. That Lulan Li...
“I feel fine, Sir.”
“Good. And Kusu..?”
Birch leaned in closer as to give the young man a private spot of advice.
“Maybe keep a tight leash on your sister. I've dealt with her enough in second-year to know what she's thinking - or not thinking, as it were. You and I both know foresight is not her forte.”
Kusu bowed solemnly.
Lulan Li, Magister Birch sighed. Another troublemaker. The younger girl was already a second-year. Hailed as a genius of the Earthen arts, she entered Fudan at the age of fifteen and progressed almost exclusively through questing credits until reaching her second-year specialisation. The girl was initially slated for an LCSS placement as well, but after what she did to her opponent...
There were good reasons why Lulan Li usually took her lessons away from Shanghai. Then again, he mused to himself; maybe the girls deserved one another. One troublemaker against another, like fighting fire with fire.
Despite the well-fought match, it wasn't hard for Birch to imagine that Lulan was under the impression that Gwen cheated. After all, what kind of Conjurer-Evoker had an Abjuration Shield? Not to mention Gwen’s Shield was stronger than even an Abjurer’s of the same tier. There was her Familiar’s ability as well - a Familiar that consumed enchanted implements. How was Kusu supposed to fight that?
He knew a little of their circumstances: Kusu wasn't an inheriting disciple of the main branch, but had every ambition to make it to the top. The boy was gifted, but his sister was something else - and therein lied the trouble.
It would take someone far better connected than he to ensure the incident did not blow out of proportion. Who the hell thought it was a good idea to rile the Clanners up? He would have to look into that as well. A Magister did not allow others to set fire to their own backyard!
Maybe he should pay Klavdiya a visit.
He would love nothing more than to see her again; not the imperfect facsimile that was her granddaughter, but the perfection of her own face, untouched by the passage of years.
* * *
“I am fine, really." Gwen’s mind was still thinking of Lulan Li, who looked as though she wanted to drink her blood, even after they left.
“If you’re sure…” Lu stepped away from her politely, keeping a respectful distance as Gwen sat on the infirmary's white bedding.
“I’ve still got Evocation Practicals, I just need an hour’s meditation, that’s all.”
“I’ll speak to Magus Young if you like, you can postpone,” Lu offered kindly.
Gwen shook her head politely. Clanners being nice to her? That itself was enough to set her packing.
“Thank you, Lu. You’ve done plenty enough for me.”
Lu had escorted her to the infirmary east of the campus, a few minutes by foot. For a Clanner who was usually aloof and utterly neglectful of Gwen’s presence, the Spirit Conjurer had affected an 180 and was acting like one of those young men in inane idol-dramas.
When Lu finally left, she doubled-checked her surroundings with Detect Magic, then told the presiding nurse that she would like some privacy for a few hours to restore her mana and focus. The nurse complied, pulling close the curtains, and told her to call if she began to feel worse.
Sensing that she was alone, Gwen began her meditation, feeling her Druidic essence restore her Void-ravaged mana conduits. As her body healed, she attempted to figure out if her latest incident was spontaneous or a part of something more significant.
She began with her immediate concern.
Kusu Li and Lulan Li.
She had seen them once before down at the training hall.
They were the ones who had cornered her once, whom she had elected to ignore, then retreated from.
Did they challenge her because they thought she was an easy persimmon to squash? A little fig of fame, plump for the plucking?
Gwen knew that because of the infamy brought by her Void talent, her Scholarship, and her relationship with Petra, she was somewhat notorious. With the addition of Caliban’s high-impactful visual presence during her bestiary training, she was likely a well-known personality on the Upper Campus.
Was that why Kusu challenged her?
It made sense logically.
In Henry IV part I, the future King Henry V especially challenged Hotspur and killed him for the 'garlands' of fame and honour taken from the young warrior-prince. It was central to Henry V's plan to assume the throne by building a reputation for himself.
If so, then why was Lu trying to help her?
They were both Clanners, and they evidently knew each other. Kusu even called Lu Elder-Brother.
That being the case, was this orchestrated by the both of them?
Was Kusu supposed to thrash her, then Lu comes to the rescue to impress her? Was Dai a part of this?
Speaking of Dai, he still owed her a favour. Maybe she could look into that. That was one way to resolve this problem, but further contact with yet more Clanners - and a big-wig at that - was the last thing she desired.
At 1400, Gwen felt her body clock tick over.
It was time for her Evocation Prac.
* * *
Evocation took place down on the Lower Campus Training Grounds, a zone setup especially for the purpose of large-scale magical demonstrations.
Portable ‘WoF’ generators had been set up across a span of about two football fields, dividing the malleable, transmuted asphalt with simmering barriers. Various Dummy-golems, given life with simplistic Animate Lesser Objects enchantments, formed a line of stackable targets that, from a distance, looked comically like a wooden marching band.
As with Conjuration, the examination was split between Combat and Utility.
Very few students actually studied Evocation for industrial purposes, but it was essential to manufacturing that at least a portion of students chose finesse over malevolence. As Gwen walked onto the field, she became surrounded by her usual companions in Evocation, the phonically challenged Pu, the haughty Lily, as well as the quiet Material Engineer -Jon.
The trio immediately surrounded Gwen.
“Mao below! Pu and Lily told me about what happened during Conjuration, are you alright?” Jon inquired, his bookish face red with worry. Usually, the boy kept to himself and was the ardent listener of the foursome. “The Clanners… I don’t know. Couldn’t you have refused?”
In hindsight, Gwen wished she’d refused as well. She had made a call on imperfect information, and now she bore the consequences. At any rate, it wasn’t as though Gwen thrashed the man. It was a good duel, she didn't push her full advantage. Given opportunity and Evocation, she could have jacked up Ariel with a Druidic-boost and potentially dropped the poor man with a single Elemental Sphere or a well-placed Lighting Bolt.
The young man had been amiable enough, humble and accepting of his defeat. Lu helped, and Magister Birch had certified her victory - what more was there to be done? She'd done her part.
Maybe it was the money? Gwen felt a rash of cold sweat. Kusu had given her denomination as small as 5 HDMs. Perhaps she had accidentally bankrupted the guy? If someone had bankrupted her, she would be feeling sore indeed.
Then again, Gwen reminded herself. She had done what was best for herself in the circumstances, going as far as to leave Kusu unscathed. If that Elemental Swarm had been Void or if she finished him with a Void Tentacle...
“I’ve got it under control,” Gwen assured her friends. “I’ve got back-up as well, haha.”
“You’re friends with Petra Kuznetsova and studying under Magister Wen, right?” Pu asked doubtfully, his lack of confidence written all over his face. "Are they going to help you? Magister Wen is famous for her indifference to these things."
“It's not Magister Wen who's going to help. I know that Gwen's the niece of Jun 'The Ash Bringer' Song,” Lily spoke up, far more confident than her companion in Gwen's bravado.
The two boys turned to regard Gwen with a new light.
“But he’s Chinese! And you're...”
“He’s half-Russian, actually. Though he takes after my Grandfather," Gwen corrected them.
“Who's your grandfather?”
Gwen told them.
“You’re a PLA Guan-er-dai! A power progeny!" Pu stammered. He'd been told by his family to avoid association with Clanners, Guan-er-dai, and the Fu-er-dai. He and his friends were just regular, middle-class kids with a bit of talent. Involvement in a political power feud could wipe out their entire line in a single purge.
Jon looked thoroughly intimidated as well.
“I am not, really, it's complicated,” Gwen shook her head. “The family and I are not close. I also have no desire to follow my Uncle into the PLA.”
“Don’t worry, we understand,” Lily, who was a provincial Guan-er-dai herself, said sympathetically. She seemed to have reached a suitable misunderstanding. It made sense though. Gwen had talent, she had beauty, but she never spoke about her family, bragged about her connections, nor attended important socials. “I am sure your family will accept you one day, you have such an amazing talent, after all.”
Gwen felt fatigued by the effort required to dispel Lily’s inferred hypothesis that she was a secret lovechild of influential people, but decided against it. Her friends were clearly ‘independently aligned’ students, and she was better off being seen as ‘one of them’ than one of the 'big three' to be avoided in Fudan.
“Still, wow, The Ash Bringer is your uncle,” both Jon and Pu muttered reverently.
“That’s why Gwen should be safe!” Lily took her arm, and they began to proceed toward the centre of the practice field, where the students were assembled. They had practicals for Evocation in Week 4 already, which Gwen passed without incident. “Ha, can you imagine it. Some Clanner opening their mountain gate, only to find The Ash Bringer staring them down, demanding for the prick who hurt his niece!”
“Uncle Jun wouldn't be so rash!” Gwen laughed, realising that perhaps, she was in a better position than she’d thought. The cognisance instantly made her relax, scattering the dark cloud of paranoia that had hung overhead. Uncle Jun did explicitly say that he 'had her back', which, now that she got thinking - was likely directed especially at events such as these. In Shanghai, as in Sydney, one needed backing. A Mage couldn’t just thrive on talent alone.
So she could appeal to Uncle Jun.
She could call in her favour with Dai.
She could even ask Magister Wen if need be, Gwen was positive Magister Wen would fight tooth and nail for her fortnightly samples.
Time for some ass-kicking in Evocation!
* * *
Despite having spent almost five weeks with two Familiars attending class with her, Gwen’s infamy in Evocation was nowhere near the level of begrudging notoriety engendered in Conjuration. She rarely used her Void powers outside of private practice, and most of the students knew her as a Conjuration Major, Evocation Minor. Evokers possessing a superior talent to Gwen numbered in the dozens out of almost two hundred individuals, not to mention she was still grinding through tier 3 while the rare student had reached 5.
Combat trials were essentially obstacle courses combined within a shooting range. Targets varied from stationary-single, moving-single, cluster, cluster-in-motion; to identify Friend-Foe scenarios. It was this final segment, where ‘enemies’ were placed beside ‘allies’, that proved the real challenge. As different Evokers had variable access to elements and spells, the grading was geared toward problem-solving, precision and control, Spell-shaping, and situational awareness.
The rationale for such stringent training was that university graduated students were independently operating agents. A secondary graduate going straight to vocation College or Military Service would also be trained in the same tactics but would lack the higher knowledge necessary to become anything other than NCOs, rank and file.
Unlike Gwen's incident-filled morning, the afternoon proceeded smoothly.
There were prodigious standouts in Evocation as well. A plethora of Fire Mages scored over 90. An Earthen Mage scored over 100, performing above the scoring threshold. The student who topped the class was a Mud Mage, the first of his kind Gwen had ever seen, who had a perfect 120, going as far as to single out and destroy a target surrounded on all sides by moving, friendly dummies simulating a panicked crowd.
Gwen finished her heat with a personal best of 1 Minute and 58'11 Seconds, extinguishing 18/20 targets with an aggregate score of 89.
Her companions of Evocation, Pu and Lily, finished in the mid-80s as well, with Jon trailing in the 60s.
Gwen didn’t mind the modest score, because she was bereft of a foe-seeking Spirit to guide her bolts, not to mention both Ariel and Caliban were absent from her trial. She was happy with the uninspiring result. The last thing she needed was yet another Clanner who would pluck the wreath from her brow to adorn their heads.
Magus Young was still excitedly congratulating the victor when Gwen told her friends that she was seriously needing some food in her belly. She had used her Void abilities excessively in the morning, then ended up skipping lunch as a result of Lu's excessive kindness. Going by the experience of the past month, another hour or two without a fortifying meal of mana-rich comfort cuisine and she would be feeling light-headed and dizzy.
Her friends urged her to be safe, going as far as to escort her home.
“Well, how about I shout you guys a nice dinner since we're all going the same way?” Gwen suggested. Familiarity breeds intimacy, after all. She had known Pu, Lily and Jon for almost six weeks now.
“Shout dinner?” Lily raised a critical brow.
“It means buy dinner,” Gwen translated.
The boys were evidently keen, going by their enthusiastic anticipation. Lily sighed, overpowered by the democratic decision.
“Alright, nothing too expensive,” Lily relented.
“How about Fengbo Manor on Zhengmin Rd?” Gwen offered. “Cheap as chips, and a top watering hole too.”
“What… do those words even mean?” Lily couldn’t help but laugh at Gwen’s overtly idiomatic expression. Gwen realised that her Australian locutions must come out as something bizarre under her magically-translated Mandarin. "Is it next to a lake?"
“I am game. Let’s go!”
The boys took Lily by her arms and began to carry her forward.
“Lead on, Gwen Song!”
* * *
Fengbo Village was cheap but well worth the culinary visit.
The place was tiny, with a whimsical decor which suggested it was a ‘branch’ of a ‘Beggar’s Clan’. All the dishes were aptly named with titles that sounded like something from an old wuxia Vid-cast, with the menu tastefully written on bamboo plaques.
“I’ll take a Fengbo Platter, Wildland Beggar Pheasant, Chilli Mud-Carp soup, braised pork, Purple bamboo stir fry with preserved rabbit, Giant headed fish pot, stuffed goat leg, and two tubs of Enchanting Jasmine rice.”
“Tsingtao for the table as well, Mama,” Gwen ordered from the menu like a local even as her Ioun stone struggled with the pictogram calligraphy.
“You got it, Beauty!”
The middle-aged NoM lady, the wife of the Chef who was also the proprietor, took Gwen's order to the kitchen. She loved the stunning Gweilo girl to bits. Whenever Gwen showed up for dinner, almost no diner who walked through the door wanted to leave. The girl usually ordered the most expensive and exotic dishes on the menu; for many reasons, she was a godsend for attracting customers.
“So, this your usual haunt?” Pu looked around the tiny restaurant and felt cheated that an up and coming goddess of Fudan would find comfort and solace in a place fit only for middle-class NoMs and low-rank Mages.
“They serve fresh ingredients if you order the specials,” Gwen pointed out. “I guess it's not always Wildland produce, but the taste is top notch!”
Truth be told, Gwen was growing weary of being spoilt by Marong and Mayuree’s maid. During a particularly busy week, she had eaten so often at Mayuree’s generous behest that she was sure the maid had to restock the pantry twice over.
Her favourite food here was the 'Beggar’s Wildland Pheasant.'
It was a fantastic dish, one that Gwen had initially ordered out of curiosity. The chef first cleaned and tied off a Wildland pheasant after stuffing it with Chinese rice wine, aged ginger, Wildland shallot, coriander leaf, star anise, soy and blood sugar, then wrapped it in betel leaves, covered it in clay, then buried in a charcoal kiln and baked it for six hours.
When served, the chef personally presented himself with the cocoon, breaking the clay 'egg' with a mighty blow from a wooden hammer and releasing the famously steaming pheasant within. As the leaves came off, the juices flowed generously onto the wooden plate, sending out an aroma that flooded the restaurant and about half the alleyway.
“How is it possible that I am getting food advice from a Gweilo?!” Lily moaned, her mouth watering uncontrollably. “Beggar’s pheasant, where have you been all my life?”
The four-some tapped their beers then dug into the dish, carving up the bird with their greasy fingers and sending up another cloud of aromatic euphoria throughout the restaurant.
"Boss! One pheasant!"
"Mama! One here as well!"
Gwen's other dishes came soon after, weighing their bamboo table until its tied-lattice creaked.
"Dig in!" Gwen lavishly urged her friends to try a bit of everything.
Beers clinked, and the meal was in full swing.
Just as Gwen wrenched off a chicken-drumstick, she perceived a crashing premonition of danger touch her tongue with a taste of iron, as if she'd bitten through some undercooked offal.
Gwen looked about her surroundings, searching the patrons. From where would the danger come? Her Divination was too untrained to pinpoint hazards and recognise the source of her premonitions. Could it be her fellow diners? Was it the man stuffing his face with jasmine rice, or perhaps the bloke who looked as though the Sichuan-fish was giving him an aneurysm.
Seeing Gwen's sudden expression of dismay, her companions chopsticks came to a standstill.
The bamboo gates of the ‘Beggar's Clan Fudan Branch’ flung open with a crash.
A girl-Mage of about five-foot-five stood at the threshold, her light ochre eyes more rust than brown, burning with a circular current of Elemental Earth. She was attired in black, her silhouette tenebrous against the exterior street light.
Wocao! Gwen was beginning to pick up on the local dialect. It's been less than six hours! Was the girl that impatient for satisfaction? Shouldn't the Clanner girl be plotting from the shadows or at least ambushing her somewhere discrete? How about bringing a few goons or calling on some allies? Gwen was sure the caution of Lulan's peers still rang in her ears.
While Gwen held her beggar's chicken in disbelief, Lulan Li strode across the bamboo tiles toward her table.
Pu stared with his mouth hanging half open.
Jon was struggling to keep the soup in his mouth.
Lily was working through several shades of royally pissed off.
Gwen swallowed awkwardly, then looked for a napkin. If the girl wanted to meet and greet, it was best performed with dignity and not orchestrated with a pheasant drumstick.
The girl was now upon them.
The restaurant was packed with mostly NoM patrons, yet each and every one of them, Gwen and her companions included, felt the pressure unleashed by Lulan’s petite body. A stink of rust and iron permeated the air, a scent that curiously reminded Gwen of that unfortunate time in Blackheath.
“So… how can I help you?”
Gwen had no desire to appear overpowered, but she was wearing a bib, and her hands were still sticky with grease. It was hard enough to face down a stone cold sorceress, more so when your own dignity was yet invested in dinner.
“My brother’s daggers. I want them returned.”
“What daggers?” she asked carefully.
“The daggers you took during today’s match.”
“I took his daggers?”
“Don’t play the sha-bi!” Lulan snapped at her. “Your Mongolian Death Worm! It ate almost a hundred of Big-Brother’s implements! I want them returned! They don’t belong to you!”
SHIT, Gwen confirmed that the girl was talking about the ‘daggers’ the Earthen Conjurer had summoned. How the fuck was she supposed to know they were magical implements? Return them? Since when did Caliban return anything?
“There’s going to be a slight problem with that,” Gwen replied politely. Were the daggers particularly precious? Or were they a sentimental thing.
“You better not fuck with me.” Lulan’s irises alternated between amber and wine, pulsating with dark emotions. The girl seemed unusually taken, Gwen noted, almost excessively so. “Those daggers took brother thousands of hours to inscribe. They’re irreplaceable.”
Well, that would explain why he was moving them around like a telepath, Gwen realised. She had thought that the guy had a Sword-Spirit or something. But none of that mattered now, she couldn’t return - that is, Caliban couldn't regurgitate - the blades even if she commanded him to.
Gwen was more anxious for the spectacle in front of her.
The irrationality of Lulan's act was as rash as fire.
Gwen doubted that even Yue, with her fiery temper and passion, would do something as stupid as confronting a rival in public, and alone no less.
Gwen couldn’t see why the Huashan girl would ruin herself by attacking her here. They were well within limits of the CBD, her Clan was evidently not one with influence in Shanghai's provincial government. What was she getting at? What’s her game? Surely it can’t be over some measly steak knives!? What are they, Dwarves forged Damascus steel? Did she have other members outside, waiting for an ambush?
“I am afraid that’s impossible,” Gwen explained calmly. “Caliban consumes things in a manner directly correlated to the Void. Your brother's implements are gone - in the purest, most literal sense imaginable.”
As the last of her words left her lips, the ground began to tremble.
The elemental earth pouring out of the girl was tectonic! Gwen’s Divination Sigil pinched her nerves like she'd slipped a disk. She immediately circulated a flood of Void matter through her mana-conduits, triggering a surge of her Druidic essence. Across the table, her companions readied themselves likewise, resisting the incredible pressure exerted by the brash Earthen Elementalist.
“Don’t you fucking dare,” Lily warned Lulan. “My father is-”
Something shot up from below their table, smashing the bamboo top into a splintering mess. The recently prepared banquet erupted in a delicious cascade, sending up a fountain of scalding soup, congealing grease, chunks of chicken, slices of pork, vegetables and rice into a fantastic shower.
Gwen immediately regretted not having her Familiars out. Caliban was naturally gifted at snatching flying bits of food out of the air.
“Tamade! That bitch is DEAD!” Lily, the fiery Evoker, staggered back from the table, her expression full of intensity and anger as she wiped soup from her lips.
Pu and Jon likewise retreated, their clothes and faces covered with sauces.
Gwen sat without moving an inch. She knew the immediate danger had passed. Her Divination sense was no longer flaring like a swollen sinus during pollen season.
She sighed as bits of beggar chicken fell from her hair and dripped onto her v-neck tunic, soaking her intimates with slow-cooked brine.
Picking out a leg of pork from between her thighs, she looked around to see if the owners were safe.
The patrons and the staff were safe, and their assailant was gone. She likely made her escape during the eruption of the banquet vocano, while their attention was distracted by the earthen eruption.
“Sorry Aunty, I’ll pay for all this,” she said to the terrified NoM woman cowering in the corner. “The Arbitrators should be here later, please let them know what happened, exactly as is.”
“Ayeeeya!" The woman seemed to have regained some of her sensibility. "Are you okay, Miss?! Ai-ya! Your clothes are all dirty!”
With some urgency, the lady-owner picked herself up from the floor and approached Gwen with a large towel she retrieved from the kitchen.
“We have a shower upstairs,” she said helpfully. Her husband too was watching warily from the kitchen. The rest of the diners, in typical Shanghai fashion, either discussed the spectacle with great gusto or continued eating as though nothing had happened.
Gwen's friends doubled-checked their surroundings and affirmed that indeed, Lulan Li was gone.
“I am going to tell my Dad, you don’t worry, Gwen,” Lily assured her friend.
“That’s alright Lil, I don’t want to involve you. I’ll inform my Uncle,” Gwen returned in kind, speaking a language that her friend understood.
“Tamade! Huashan Sect,” Pu cursed, his face scowling. “Gwen, are you alright?”
“I-I’ve got pork-floss in my eye…” Jon complained as he tried to rinse his face with a kettle of warm water the lady-owner provided.
“Sorry, everyone…” Gwen wrung a fistful of broth from her shirt. She could launder her outfit, but she was determined to cut her losses if it meant getting out of this sticky mess sooner.
She dropped an HDM on the counter and told the owner not to worry about the change.
But - was it safe to go home?
She was about five minutes from the apartment.
Maybe if she used Expeditious Retreat and Enhanced Agility?
Something wasn't right with the girl's head. That much was obvious even to Gwen. Could she bet that Lulan Li wouldn't assault her in the middle of Shanghai’s second largest University District? There was a police station just a block away! There was a Tower within walking distance!
But could she bet her life on Lulan's rationality?
Gwen wasn’t a betting sort of woman.
She pulled up her Message device and dialled for Richard.
Behind her, her Evocation companions exchanged curses and insults about their encounter with the sha-bi.
“Yes, Gwen?” Richard’s voice answered.
“Hey Dick," Gwen intoned sweetly. "Can I trouble you for an escort? I am in a bit of a tight spot…”