Elder Li’s backhand strike left a five-fingered imprint on Lulan’s cheek.
“WHAT DID I TELL YOU?” Her Uncle hissed. “Subtlety! This is not our territory! We have no influence here in Shanghai. What in the name of the Ancestor Jiang did you think you were doing?”
“Uncle Luwei, Lulan was just-”
“Shut your mouth, Kusu!” Luwei turned to his disciple with a wave of anger that made the young man recoil.
“YOU LOST, and what’s more, you lost a hundred or more of your inscribed daggers! How long did it take you to craft those blades?”
“Three years, Shifu.” Kusu felt that given the circumstance, respect was likely kinder than kinship.
“Well? Where are they?” Luwei turned to Lulan. “You went to find Gwen Song, didn't you? Where are your brother’s inscribed implements?”
Lulan touched a finger to her swelling cheek. A dangerous mist of pinkish oxide seemed to reach her eyes.
“Gwen Song says they are destroyed.”
“And you believed her?”
Luwei looked as though he was about to slap the churlish girl again, but a chilling, murderous intent dissuaded him from acting upon the impulse.
“I spoke to Second Brother earlier. Our Clan received a caution from the Tower! A Magister Wen made an official complaint. A Caution! What do you think would happen if either of you were expelled or Blacklisted? You will never receive accreditation! You think another C-9 League University would take rejects from Fudan?”
The siblings weathered the verbal beatdown.
“Stupid child! You don't know who Wen is, do you? Let me remind you: Magister Marie-Roslyn Wen of Henglong Laboratory is on no less than FOUR Advisory Boards, THREE Examination Councils, and is a regular member of the Accreditation Committee! I don’t care if the girl is an inbred DOG! She’s Magister Wen’s DOG! DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME? LULAN?!”
The two youngsters looked as though they were willows being blasted by a storm. Luwei had to take a breather before he could continue.
“Who told you that Gwen Song was excommunicated from the Songs?”
“I heard from Pei,” Lulan confessed, her voice hoarse with simmering animosity.
Pei was the youngest son of the Patriarch, Dulian Li. Talented and fair of disposition, he was the Clan Master's favourite. There were already rumours that should Pei best his seniors when he came of age, he would become the inheriting disciple.
“It’s true, Shifu,” Kusu backed up his sister, stepping in front of her protectively in case his Master’s hands itched again. His sister was a useful tool for the clan, but she wasn’t Luwei Li’s tool. Their Master, San - a homonym for 'Third Uncle', perished at the Front a year ago. Since then, Lulan's talent and her difficult demeanour made a dangerous combination that seriously agitated factional politics in the Huashan Sect.
“Pei? What does Pei have to do with this?”
“He knows Gwen Song’s brother, Percy Song,” Kusu spoke in his sister’s stead. Lulan had a way of talking that always brought out the worst in her elders. It was the chief reason that despite her talent, she was scorned in the Sect. She was brash, rash and had no respect.
“An important distinction,” Kusu continued. “Percy told Pei that his sister was excommunicated from the family and made to give up her inheriting heirloom - a Kirin-Stone amulet. Pei further confirmed that he has seen this amulet worn by her brother. We’d thought that since she was expelled from the inheriting line entirely...”
“Guo Song disinherited a girl with dual Void and Lighting? She’s got a Mongolian Death Worm leashed to her astral soul!” his Master muttered incredulously. “Why didn’t the two of you think of that? Huh? You think someone without backing just casually goes farming for pets in the Gobi Desert? That’s a Black Zone! Not even the Undead venture there. Maybe the Ash Bringer escorted her? But he's an active Military member... then again...”
Luwei scanned his clan's two 'prodigies', checking to see if they were trying to fool him. He would have to verify with the Eldest's son himself.
"So, who's idea was it?"
It was a rhetorical question.
Lulan, who stood demurely behind Kusu, blanched.
A rare moment of passivity, driven by the notion that she'd ruined her brother's chances at advancing his position. It was only in these rare flashes that an observer could see that in fact, Lulan could be quite beautiful. Lulan Li had monolid fox-eyes that were long and almond, with heavy lashes that accentuated a rust-ochre set of pupils illuminated wetly by distress and dim light. Her striking complexion had a sheen to it that gleamed, her skin stretched taut over a trained figure without excess body fat. If one looked carefully, one caught bruises and abrasions from practice and adventure that floated beneath her porcelain exterior, but these little blemishes only added to her peculiar allure.
Lulan's charm was an unyielding kind of beauty. The sort one felt when regarding a monolithic formation of a cliff face, or perhaps the lay of a precarious cliff. Under her gaze, what one felt wasn’t awe or admiration - but fear and intimidation.
“That’s it? You acted on a rumour?”
“We studied the girl for weeks,” Kusu continued to defend his sister. “She never spoke nor visited her grandfather even once. She saw Director Song three to four times, for shopping trips and luncheons. Her primary focus seems to be training. Even when we confronted her a few weeks ago, she fled from us. She’s not from the PLA Faction, I guarantee it.”
“Hmmph!” Luwei eyed the siblings with dissatisfaction. Her defiance continued to rub him the wrong way, especially when their stupid ploy sullied the name of the Huashan Sect. He needed now to return to the Mount and inform the other Elders and verify their story.
“Leave me, and keep your sister out of trouble. Tend to your injuries and write a reflection letter for the Patriarch. Leave nothing out. Explicitly examine every single ability Gwen Song has demonstrated.”
“And a Letter of Apology to Magister Wen as well. Likewise, Lulan, you’re forbidden from contacting Gwen Song again.”
"Good, I-" Luwei stopped. For a moment there, he thought she said 'no'.
Lulan’s irises had turned the colour of red wine. She stared at Kusu as though in a trance. It was the red mist, Kusu felt goosebumps break over his skin. That was what he called it when Lulan became focused on something and couldn't tear herself away. Their old Master had said that it had something to do with excessive Yang energy. The Ironheart technique wasn’t composed with the intent of being practised by female disciples. Their Song Dynasty founder would have rolled in his grave if he knew that a woman could successfully manifest the Iron Sword technique.
Lulan continued to speak.
“They’re going on excursion soon to the Lost Districts today. I can confront her there. I’ll get back brother’s daggers," she stated. "Give me another chance. I won't fail."
“Lulan!” Luwei’s patience was hanging by a straw. “Enough!”
Lulan met her Uncle's eyes with an expression of insubordinate defiance.
Kusu knew that look well. He moved to intervene.
Kusu flinched. He was a second too late.
Another five-fingered welt marred the other side of Lulan's face.
When their Uncle spoke again, his voice was more fatigued than angry.
“By the Iron Sword, there better not be another incident. Also, make sure that your implements are either retrieved or entirely destroyed. If our arts should be stolen thanks to your blunder. I will personally disinherit the both of you.”
“...” Lulan remained silent.
“Yes! Shifu!” Kusu bowed. "I will negotiate with Gwen Song."
He'd done all he was willing to do.
San Li was dead. The Siblings had an awkward place in the Clan. If the girl could not be brought to heel... then whatever happens next would be for the best.
Kusu remained in place, bowing until his Uncle's sedan drove away. Hopefully, this was the end of the incident for both himself and his sister. Their father might be the second-hand man of the Patriarch, but he was more so a scholar than a warrior, influential because he held the purse-strings, not because he could wield the Iron Sword over the heads of his enemies.
When it came to factional conflicts, Luming could not be counted on to stand on the side of his children.
As for the Iron Sword of Huashan…
Kusu reached behind and felt for his sister’s affirmation. Her hands were not like that of a girl's. She had the calloused palms of a Jianshi; her fingers rough from practice.
“Don’t worry, I’ll protect you,” Kusu said to his sister, wondering if that was true. Who’s protecting who? Kusu mused. Could he trust Pei to abide by his promise?
His fingers grasped the air, where he had expected Lulan to meet his hand; there was only absence.
“Lulan?” Kusu turned to find his sister.
The girl was gone.
Ten thousand llamas rode across the terrain of Kusu's muddy mindscape.
* * *
Both of Gwen's Economic and Management essays were done and dusted with full confidence in distinctions.
The ‘Field Trip’, as it was announced, would take up to three days, from Friday to Sunday, pending on the student’s performance.
As expected, Gwen was joined by a jubilant Mayuree, an indifferent Kitty, and finally, a tired looking Richard who saw the excursion as a big break.
A day ago, while pumping two cubes full of the tenebrous energy of extinction, Gwen had told Magister Wen of her troubles. Petra's Master told her she would put a word in with the Tower, and that should be the end of it.
Confident in the Magister's promise, Gwen turned her attention to the excursion.
She took stock of her Adventuring Gear:
One pair of leggy double-lace Boots of Flying.
One civilian-class Chameleon Cloak, stowed.
One pair of tactical all-occasion underwear.
One Ring of Evasion.
She had her usual passive items, such as her Ioun Stones and Gunther’s Contingency Ring. She furthermore possessed in her Storage Ring a Vitae Fruit and Petra’s gift of Tier 8 Regeneration.
Six healing injectors.
Six mana injectors.
Her problem now with Mana potions was that the mundane variety restored less than half of her mana, while the 'greater' variety was almost ten times the price, at nearly 60 HDMs. Possessing virtually no alchemical skills or talents, she caught potion-fatigue on her second bottle, meaning she could get three-quarters of her mana per day back, once.
Kitty was an all-rounder, requiring virtually nothing to supplement her enviable Spell List of everything from Haste to Fly, Frost Armour to Blizzard. Compared to Gwen in her button-tab blouse and grey-blue ‘skort’, the pixie-like Mage was perfectly prim in her A-line one piece, naturally in ultramarine.
Richard meanwhile, wore jeans, a lumber jack’s flannel, combat boots and white inners. He had also taken to acquiring a beard after Gwen mentioned just how much manlier Jun looked than Morye with his circular beard, though her cousin’s five-o-clock shadow made him more menacing than handsome.
Mayuree, finally, was decked out in Fu-er-dai splendour.
Two enchanted Rings on each hand.
An amulet of Health at her throat.
A white, inscribed knee-length dress that repelled dirt, dust and elements effects, paired with Boots of Flying that, according to her smug boast, was Water-Walking as well.
Mayuree showed off no less than three Combat Wands: A Wand of Magic Missile, a Wand of Scorching Ray, and a Wand of Stone Shape, each with ten charges.
“Are we anticipating something?” Gwen asked the Diviner. There must be a reason why Mayuree was equipped to clear out a Hobs' Den.
“Who knows?” Mayuree shrugged mysteriously. “Its good to be prepared, you know?”
“Can I get a heads up?”
“I’d rather not…”
“Alright,” Gwen made a mental note to follow her Diviner closely. "How are we getting there?"
For all the fire and fury the junior Mages exhibited, Gwen's answer came in the form of a hired Municipal bus.
There were about forty students on the bus to the first District - an area once known as Chonggu-zhen, meaning ‘Hamlet of the Clan Chong-Gu.” But both clan and name were lost to the shifting sands of Dynasty and epoch until all that remained was a misnomer for the ‘model’ city's official designation - District-35.
As the bus rolled out, Gwen realised shamefully that this was the farthest she had ventured from Shanghai’s CBD since arriving some half a year ago. There was so much to see, but she had done none of it. It was the equivalent of an expatriate in New York never going past Queens, or a Sydney-sider having never gone beyond the Shire.
As the superstructures of Shanghai’s central districts fell away, the roadsides began to transform. The concrete city mortared in steel and glass began to shift into brick and tin until finally, they were looking at stunted apartments with blasted windows for eyes and busted doors for teeth.
“Reconstruction Zones,” someone on the bus said helpfully. “Mao, they’re filthy.”
After three-quarters of an hour, the Third Orbital Ring was reaching its farthest boundary. Suddenly, the landscape changed again.
The roads became straighter, power poles began to make a regular appearance and trees once again made their presence known. In the distance, they could now see District-35 and its megastructure looming overhead, coming closer as their bus hurtled down the highway.
Coming closer, Gwen could see that the District-Zones were just like her memory of the infamous Kowloon Walled City. Behind a concrete barrier four meters high, the stacked rectangular blocks appeared packed back to back, wall to wall, floor to ceiling. In a fashion almost unique to Asian culture, laundry, not architecture, dominated the scene. An endless array of laundry kilometres long and forty stories high, covered every conceivable space on the building’s exterior, giving the place the appearance of a pirate-fort made from stilts and canvas rather than rebar-reinforced concrete.
The hire-bus pulled up at the gate, where a PLA trooper hailed the driver and examined their clearance before opening the gate. The massive concrete barriers were like the walls of a dam, opening with agonising slowness as the students waited silently in the bus.
“I can see a lady’s brasserie from here,” someone remarked jovially, pointing upward toward a window choked full of laundry. “Impressive size.”
The crowd burst into laughter, dispelling the nervousness of entering a world were NoMs were the norm.
Following their guide, the bus moved into the courtyard, where the driver told the students to disembark.
After so much time in Fudan, Gwen felt as though she'd stepped into another country.
One by one, the student Mages emerged into the lazy heat of the afternoon with her companions. As soon as she disembarked, Gwen became aware that she was being watched; that is, she was being attended by an endless multitude of curious, prying eyes.
The entire District must have turned out to watch the Fudan Mages!
There were faces in every window, hanging from every winter garden, gawking from every rooftop, nook and cranny. Women, children, men, old men, grannies and lasses, all looked upon the rare visitors below with gleaming eyes full of wonder and worship!
University Mages! They told one another. The Mages are coming! Not just any student Mages either - Sorcerers and sorceresses from Fudan! Mages who would one day stand at the Front, protecting their lives and the lives of those from the Hive city selected for Conscription! Mages, whose effort and favour meant their loved ones lived or died, survived or perished!
That's probably what the NoMs have been told. Gwen thought sadly. The citizens likely never knew anything else. The greatest achievement of any successful regime is to create orthodoxy - for orthodoxy is the removal of any need to think and question what was self-evidently the norm. In both worlds new and old, China had never lacked in indoctrination.
“DISTRICT 35 WELCOMES OUR DELEGATION FROM FUDAN!”
A sudden burst of symphonic propaganda almost took Gwen off her feet.
She had to suppress a choking bout of laughter as the absurd sight of a huge red banner unfurled in Chinese from the rooftop that read::
'DISTRICT 35 WELCOMES SAVIOUR MAGES'
While another on the adjacent building read:
'UPHOLD IDEOLOGY OF SOCIALISM
MAN AND MAGE HAND IN HAND.'
Jesus Christ, Gwen scoffed. Do they think it was that easy to-
Then the children came.
GOOD GOD! Gwen would have screamed were it not for the need to maintain decorum. Children, cute little children were rushing out, dressed in red and their very best, to bring the Mages wreaths - handmade, origami flower wreaths!!!
The kids streamed past Ma and the Administrator. Little bodies surrounded the students three to a caster and began bestowing upon them ‘handmade’ presents.
“Miss, you so pretty!”
“Oh Miss, you so tall!”
“You must be important, Miss!”
The same story was being told everywhere, and the Mages from Fudan were feeling very fine indeed, becoming instantly drunk on the praises of little boys and girls with their innocent, worshipful eyes.
The children… Gwen's cynicism melted away. The children were too adorable!
Gwen couldn’t help but pick one up, scooping the child expertly until she held the little girl in her arms. With an adorable tilt of her hand, the girl placed the red and gold wreath around Gwen's head.
A dozen little boys and girls had Richard dead to rights and were trying to overpower him with handicraft. Mayuree meanwhile, had entered some kind of nirvana, squealing and laughing uncontrollably. Kitty was the best of them, she ignored the first and engaged an aura of rime which informed the kids not to push their luck. After the first left dejectedly, the rest avoided the Ice Mage and congregated around Gwen and the others.
In the midst of her euphoria, Gwen looked past the crowd and saw Professor James Ma standing with the Administrator from earlier, smiling conspiratorially.
What an absurd display! Gwen was not sure whether to laugh or cry. What the hell is this? Is this what she had geared up for? This was too much! Gods! She felt as though she was ODing on Oxytocin. The little girls were beyond delightful! Oh! Mayuree’s little one was a cutie as well! Arrrrgh! Richard had three hugging him at once! Beware of jealousy! For it is the green-eyed monster-
Finally, the man next to Ma began to speak.
“I am Yuhan Lai, Secretariat of District 35. I welcome you to our humble abode.”
Collectively, the Mages bowed.
It was an impressive display, and the crowd ascended to a new level of fiery participation.
“I hope that you haven’t had lunch yet! Because you will now meet your hosts, and enjoy a bountiful meal cooked by the matriarch of the family!” Lai declared.
The children took Gwen by the hand and began to lead her away.
Gwen looked toward Richard alarmingly, but Mayuree came between them.
“It’s safe,” her Diviner companion assured her. “Enjoy the lunch. A little breeze told me that the excitement is to come in another District.”
The assurance was enough to affirm Gwen's resolve, and she allowed herself to be led away.
As it turned out, there was a perfect reason why the students were separated, and it had nothing to do with trying to separate party members.
It was because their NoM host's apartments could house precisely ONE Mage and the host family.
Gwen sat at the head of a table usually set for two adults, two children, and a toddler. The room she now occupied was stacked from floor to ceiling with versatile vertical space-savers. Fold out beds, fold-out chairs. Fold out cupboards. Fold-out everything. The entire habitat-block measured four-meters wide and five-odd long, forming a space for five people - three children, one grandparent, and a lone mother in her early thirties.
“Please, please make yourself comfortable, Miss Mage!” The woman, who to Gwen’s eyes was quite beautiful in a homely sort of way, pleaded for her to be at ease in the cramped space of their abode. She was evidently a recent mother, for she had that soft and feminine look to her eyes, as well as a lingering scent of breast milk.
“Please, call me Gwen,” Gwen insisted. “What’s your name?”
“My name is Bai-Lian, Mistress,” the woman replied. “I am delighted to be of service.”
“Thank you for the luncheon, Bailian” Gwen replied kindly.
“Oh no, its thanks to your presence that we are getting extra rations, please help yourself.” The woman bowed again needlessly.
“Big sister, please partake in this tea!”
The kids must have been touted, Gwen felt- because the six-year-old girl was expertly pouring out Jasmine tea for her into a cup, then presenting it to her with both hands.
“Thank you.” Gwen took the cup carefully, terrified of spilling tea on the little one.
“Please try these dates!” Another little girl presented her with a bowl of honeyed dates.
“Thank you!” Gwen was now fully occupied.
The mother left, then returned successively, bringing in a banquet of dishes until the table was laden with food. It was all mundane, household fair, but they looked delectable.
Egg with chives.
Steamed garlic bokchoi.
Eggplant and Mince.
Ginger and shallot fish in soy sauce.
Gwen expertly worked her chopstick, portioning the food and delivering it into the bowls of the children whose eyes were gleaming with such longing that Gwen forgot about her own insatiable appetite. Bailian herself refused to dine with them but made no move to stop Gwen giving her portion to the children.
She spent the next half an hour conversing with the single-mother, but Bailian's answers grew vague once Gwen asked about her husband.
“He was Conscripted two years ago…” The woman put on a wane smile that didn’t touch her eyes, then was silent.
Oh shit. Gwen realised she stepped on a Warding Glyph. It was no business of hers that this woman had a babe not yet two years old.
“Do you work?” Gwen asked.
“I clean people’s apartments and cook for them.”
Gwen asked her how she was finding life, and Bai told her that she wished one of her three children could be a Mage. She joined with another young man because his great-grandfather had been a Fire Evoker.
The little girls looked upon Gwen with eyes that she dared not meet. She placed a hand on their heads and felt the softness of their hair, brushing the silky curls passing through her fingers.
Mages, Bailian said. She wished her children were Mages.
Gwen thought of Sydney, she thought of the battle there - the dead Mages strewed across the streets, dragged away by the Mermen, eaten alive by impatient enemies too hungry to wait. She thought of Instructor Chen’s maniacal glint as he laughed and laughed while the juniors vomited around him.
Was life so miserable here?
The grass was greener on the other side, but there in the bushes laid lions in wait.
* * *
Nephres Zalaam could scarcely believe her luck.
Gwen. Fucking. Song.
The report in her hand shivered, the mute paper quivering as though alive.
How was such a thing possible? Nephres felt her mind reeling with disbelief.
The girl had disappeared after her charge, the junior Ravenport, perished mysteriously without rhyme nor reason in Sydney. He had gone to perform the Mistress’ request, then the next thing they knew, Edmund Moore Ravenport was dead. It was supposed to be a low-risk Mission. The young Master was a Dust Magus for God’s sake, and the Shield Station was full of Abjurers. He had an entire troop of Ravenport guards with him! Four Senior Mages and two Magus, all gone.
But that's all in the past now. Spilt milk and all that.
As the nurse-in-residence for Young Lord Ravenport, her dereliction in duty meant she had to flee the house immediately. There were fates worse than death, and the wrath of a psychopathic Lord like Mycroft Ravenport ranked rather high in her list of ‘shit where death was preferable.’
At any rate, her loyalty was first to her Mistress, then to the organisation.
Nephres bit her lower lips, her eyes wandering back to the task at hand.
She was in Shanghai to pick up a supply of magically gifted youths to bring back to the Outlands - a name the organisation preferred to ‘Wildlands’. They were the ‘Others’ after all, and they lived in the “Outlands”. It rolled off the tongue better. They didn't want to be misrepresented as savages or Demi-humans.
In all honesty, as a city girl, she found the whole ordeal pretty funny. A bunch of Rogue Mages squabbling over power, dabbling in fucking public relations of all things. What the hell did they expect? That the Towers would just accept them with open arms because of alliteration? Fucking idiots.
Her local sweetmeat, Boss Yi, had told her to lay low for a few days.
“Got Elites coming through from Fudan. Find the deepest hole you can and bury yourself in for the next week,” he told her. “Maybe stay in bed, eh? We can make a child for sure. You feeling up to the task?”
“Go fuck yourself,” she told him.
“Ha ha ha.” Yi fell about cackling like an idiot, withdrawing from the silhouette of her sweat-soaked figure, smelling foully of overwrought sex. “I do love you so, you little minx.”
“You expect me to believe that, do you?”
Yi toked on a cigarette as he wiped himself, then materialised a new set of clean clothes.
“Look, just stay safe these few days, alright? Stay out of trouble. Keep your crew below and out of sight.”
Nephres didn’t dislike Boss Yi, but she wasn’t an owned woman. Far from it, Nephres rather fancied the boss as her seasonal fling. A spot of both business and pleasure.
Love? Have his child? Those thoughts never crossed her mind, not before, and not now.
Gwen. Fucking. Song.
The little bitch in the flesh after almost six months off the map, falling into her lap like God's gift from the blue yonder.
It was pure serendipity that she had spotted the girl. Out of curiosity, Nephres had asked her contacts to generate a list of the ‘Fudan Elites’ visiting the Districts, in case one of them ended up causing trouble for their operations. As the list of Dossiers passed through her hands, she had paused at a familiar pair of hazel eyes looking out from the page.
“You’re shitting me!” she heard herself mutter. “Is this fate or what?”
She quickly scanned the spartan dossier.
It was a stolen compilation thrifted from the University's registry.
Guo Song. MSS Committee Chair.
Klavdiya Song. Director 2nd PLA Experimental Hospital.
Hai Song. Unknown.
Helena Huang - Unknown.
So the girl was a Power Progeny, Nephres furrowed her perfectly tapered brows. That would explain a few things, but not why she was associated with the Sydney Tower and the folks at the very top. How were they even connected? How could they begin to know each other? The Tower and the PLA were at odds, were they not? The Grandfather could be troublesome, but that was a problem for Boss Yi, not herself.
There was one addendum that was cause for concern though.
Jun Song - The Ash Bringer.
Even as a foreign agent Nephres had heard of the Hero of the Northern Front. The man was a walking engine of destruction, and if he should find out someone had taken his niece…
Poor Yi, Nephres chuckled to herself. She tried to imagine his face when The Ash Bringer came knocking.
Her slow chuckle escalated into a rip-roaring, belly aching laughter.
Holy shit! If she weren’t going to be on a cargo ship a hundred miles away, she would've loved nothing else than to watch the god damned Ash Bringer of all people ripping the District apart! What would be the look on Yi’s face then! What kind of expression would he make? What would the man confess as his body transformed into necrotic ash, inch by inch?
Nephres turned over the file.
There were some loose annotations on the Mages' talents.
Void and Lighting!
That was her alright, there’s no mistaking it now.
Before she returned to the Outlands, her mistress had said that the girl was instrumental to the plan’s collapse in the zenith of its success. Her connection to Gunther Shultz and the Scarlet Sorceress made her an invaluable hostage. Nephres wasn’t privy to the details, but she knew one thing for sure.
If she could get her hands on Gwen Song, then her stint in the shit holes of South Asia was over.
Whether as an offering to her Mistress or as a gift to Lord Ravenport -
the ascension of Nephres Zalaam was at hand.