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Gwen farewelled her host family.

She had felt sorry for the single mother but knew the danger of giving wealth to those who could not afford to keep it; though District 35 may appear tranquil and safe, Gwen wasn’t naive enough to believe the socialist utopia was sold on its own hype.

In the end, she left the woman two self-injecting Healing Potions and a Potion of Cure Disease.

Should herself or her children be sick or injured, one dose was enough to restore haleness and health.

The potions could also be sold if the woman was unwise enough to trade them for money, or gift them as favours. Either way, what she did with Gwen's generosity was no longer Gwen's responsibility. She was under no delusion that she was a Samaritan. What she did, she had done for pleasure and ego, it was a repayment for the joy the children had brought her, however brief and choreographed.

When they returned to the courtyard, eight separate buses awaited for departure. The students were now being assigned to different Hive-cities, ranging from 108 and upwards.

The residents residing above were now throwing paper confetti from the top floors, showering the courtyard with a snowfall of colourful slips that made an undeniably enchanting scene.

Indeed, Mayuree was beside herself with unadulterated joy, waving happily to her host family, blowing them goodbye kisses, gushing as she tried to catch the falling confetti. Richard and Kitty, in juxtaposition, stood indifferently, Richard was smiling awkwardly at his host family, while Kitty needed no pretence to suggest she couldn't have cared less.

When they boarded the bus to District 109, their assigned ‘Outer District’, there only remained their party of four and another party of three seniors, two young men and an older woman. They had not seen these Mages prior except in passing during the lectures, and so the two groups snubbed each other, segregated to the front and back.

With a honk and the sound of earth-shattering applause in their ears, they were away. The buses returned to the highway, then ventured toward the furthest reaches of the Fourth Orbital Ring road.

* * *

After ten rumbling minutes on the highway, Professor James Ma’s projection appeared, this time as a ghostly tour guide.

The trip to District 109 would take almost an hour. As an academic excursion, it naturally came with a lecture component.

“Hello everyone in the Management course. I hope you have enjoyed the exemplar of prosperity; a city which, under good management, has successfully attained a balance between autonomy and compliance.”

“District 35, a ‘Model’ District, accounts for a third of our current satellite NoM cities. Self-contained within the District is an escalator system of advancement where public education offered to the NoM Citizens ensures that they are capable of achieving lives outside of the Hive, where the best and brightest have opportunities to become civil servants; engage in productive labour for the state, or find work in the private sector. I hope you have enjoyed your first-hand experience of speaking with the NoM citizens. These are the people that will be under your care in the future."

“Next, you will be receiving a different educational experience. You will find out what happens when law and order become diminished in a Hive city. You will come to acknowledge what is at stake, should you fail.”

A slight murmur spread through the bus. This episode was no surprise to anyone. The student-Mages had all been warned by friends, alumni, family, Masters and Instructors.

"You will be entering the Lost Districts - also known as the Lost Zones."

"As Team 7 and 9, you have been assigned to D-109."

There was a slight glitch in the recording, suggesting to Gwen that Lecturer Ma had been slothful and dubbed over an old Lecture with a few new lines.

When the lecture resumed, Professor Ma was in a different coloured vest, which made Gwen chuckle with nostalgia. It was the sort of thing her old-world lecturers at Sydney University would have done as well.

"D-109 remains one of the largest of its kind, built in 1984 and designed to house 100,000 NoM citizens. Constructed as a mega-city platform, it stands today as an abject failure of policy which resulted in the proliferation of in-fighting, religious cults, the forming of violent gangs, and the infiltration of the Triads into the districts."

"In 1993, the PLA attempted purging 'undesirable elements'. Though initially gainful, the operation ultimately failed to dislodge the unlawful presence. In reviewing policy, the CCP realised it was a mistake to convene such a scale of citizens, especially given that the Hive was equipped with food production and water purification operations. District-109 had become a microcosm, a city in a bottle with its own rules and regulations that seemed to exist almost independently from the outside world. What was initially a perfect infrastructural system with the very best intentions for its citizens, proved to be the very thing the PLA loathed - a collection of civilians who no longer embraced the ideals of Chairman Mao, blessed be he in his crystal resting place."

"Faced with mounting tension and dissidence in how to deal with the Lost Districts, the PLA formulated a new policy in 1996 under Premier Hu."

"Leave D-108 to D-128 to their own devices."

The lecture paused while the image drank a glass of water.

Mayuree was already asleep in Gwen's arms. Richard as well was resting his eyes against the window.

Professor Ma continued.

"The Lost Districts would serve another purpose. They would be used as proving grounds for social experiments, Mage training exercises, places where samples could be collected, theories tested."

"Should a District resist, they had no way to prevent the PLA from destroying the sub-basement and thus, the entire eco-system of the Hive. When the rogue citizens ran out of food and water, and a significant culling had been undergone, the survivors would naturally return to the embrace of order and law that was Mao's vision for China."

"In 2003, it may be best to consider the Lost Districts as penal colonies. They provided their share of Conscripts - twice as high as any other District - and paid their tithe of produce, goods, and newly awakened Mages. In return, they received autonomy to run their own cities to the ground."

The vid-cast glitched again. Professor Ma reappeared wearing his previous vest.

“You will soon be entering one of these cities. Within the city, you will be effectively cut off from Shanghai. Your Message devices will not work outside of their natural range. In the process of completing your given tasks, there is only one thing you have to do - OBSERVE EVERYTHING. Observe the consequences of those whose use of power is without remorse, whose abuse of their Magic is without consequence. The residents of these cities may attack you, and you are well within your rights to respond. I urge, however, that you recall enough empathy to recognise that not all Mages and NoMs are born with the knowledge and privilege that you possess. I hope you can acknowledge that ofttimes, circumstance drives action, not logic or rationality. Whatever your choices may be, I want you - as students of Fudan - as future Guardians, Paladins, Arbitrators and Tower Masters, to gaze upon how your actions, your choices, your decisions, can impact the lives of those whose fragile existences you hold in your hands. Though you may be underground, you are not in a Dungeon. These are real people with real lives, aspirations, desire for life and living just as you do.”

"I wish you good luck."

With that, Professor Ma's vid-cast faded.

Gwen turned to her companions, her appearance paler for the news. She was sure there was a segment that was cut out by accident. Wasn’t there something else Ma was supposed to say? Like 'DON’T MURDER PEOPLE?' You will be 'PENALISED' if become a 'MASS MURDERER'?!

“Is he saying we’re going to butcher people in there? Kill NoMs that attack us?” Gwen couldn't help but vocalise her anxiety.

“I would venture that we ‘may choose’ to kill people in there,” Mayuree corrected her. "We don't 'have' to kill people."

“It’s the NoMs' 'choice' to attack us.” Kitty shrugged with indifference. "It doesn't diminish my right to defend myself to the best of my abilities."

“I could probably incapacitate them if need be,” Richard assured Gwen as her complexion blanched. “You’ll be fine. They’d have to have a death wish, ha!”

There was laughter from the front of the bus as well.

“I don’t think they know how bad the Lost Districts can be,” a voice sniggered.

“It’s a dog-eat-dog world in there, beauty!” one of the young men scoffed. “You’re gonna have to stow your white gloves for this quest!”

Kitty rolled her eyes at Gwen's soft-heartedness.

"..." Gwen ignored the others' snide remarks. She gazed outwards toward the retreating distance as her mind lingered on the memories of Blackheath.

She made her first kill there, guided by Gunther's hand. He had taken her into a world she didn't dare think possible. That was her first step onto the Path of Asura, she was dragged kicking and screaming on its bloody path, but how many lives had she taken since?

There was Faceless. He - She - It - deserved it.
Then there was the pigtail girl whose name Gwen had forgotten.
Would there now be another and another?

The mind was willing, but the heart - the heart was in revolt.

"I see it!" someone said at the front, interrupting her thoughts.

The bus had passed some threshold on the highway. The manicured trees fell away, and the urbanscape once again declined to dilapidation and neglect.

They were indeed getting closer.

The students could see a looming wall in the distance, a barrier circuit that surrounded a block of concrete habitats rising into the air like grey mushrooms. As they came closer, details appeared: precarious extension of sheet metal and wood erupted from the surface of the facade like wild fungi. The addition of laundry, far less colourful and far more numerous, furthermore made the collective of apartments appear as an amalgamated whole. From afar, the whole superstructure resembled a dark lesion across the landscape in the shape of an ‘L’.

Painted across the gate were the Chinese pictograms for ‘109’. The red communist logo of the sickle and hammer had been defaced, and slogans promising order and civility were likewise scratched off or painted over. A smog of exhaust hung over the air directly above, thick and miasmic, giving substance to its oppressive atmosphere.

“Struth,” Gwen exclaimed. "The size of it up close..."

“Mao above, so that’s what it was,” Mayuree muttered. “The smell…”

The smell was the first thing on the mind of the students as the bus entered the compound. Mana, miasma and human odour lingered in the courtyard.

After the students disembarked, the driver immediately made a U-turn and left the malice-filled space of the courtyard.

There was a contingent here to meet them.

A troop of soldiers in dark emerald-khaki, the uniform of the PLA, fanned out and made a perimeter around a man in an olive uniform.

“Students of Fudan! Welcome to District 109! I am the District Administrator, Secretariat Choi. It is a pleasure to meet some of the best and the brightest stars of the academy!”

The students lined up before the Secretariat.

“We thank you for having us, Sir!” One of the second years bowed. Gwen and the rest followed suit. It was easier to parallel their seniors to avoid a potential faux pas.

“Let’s talk inside,” Choi advised. “The external courtyard is not the safest place to linger.”

As they entered the city proper, Gwen noted the grimy scraps and dusty wraps of garbage that hung in each and every corner of the forecourt. District 35 had been spotless, it even had gardens with flower beds! Anti-aesthetically, the courtyard here had puddles, potholes, and the occasional offensive spill which indicated the filtration system below must be operating at its limits.

Gwen looked up. She likewise noted that the windows were all closed and curtained despite the sunny disposition of the day. As they entered the shaded avenue of the Hive-city, the temperature immediately dropped by four to five degrees, making her shiver.

“Gwen, we’re being watched by A LOT of people.” Mayuree’s eyes glowed with the soft light of Divination.

Gwen redoubled her efforts to spot the hidden citizens above. As her pupils adjusted, she could see pale faces looking out from between the curtains and windows. There were almost a thousand windows visible from the central quadrangle that led into the heart of the city’s habitat blocks. Their presence was less than welcome, the buzz of ambident hostility filled the air like the sizzle of a live wire.

“There are quite a few magical signatures too,” Mayuree added, pulling her white coat tightly over her shoulders. The girl had materialised a parka that covered her upper body and shielded her enchanted attire from prying eyes. Beside her, Kitty protectively walked closer to Mayuree as well. The pixie girl must be drawing quite the attention in her ultramarine knife-pleated one-piece dress, though her confident gait hinted at abilities that yearned to be tested. In contrast, Gwen herself was quite satisfied with her demure earth-tone pastels. She had earlier wondered why her friends chose such conspicuous attire but came to an epiphany after beholding an entire busload of well-dressed compatriots. To put it bluntly, Gwen realised her fellow Mages didn't give a shit about what NoMs thought - they were far more interested in impressing their peers and Mages of the opposite sex. To the majority of her elite classmates, the NoMs in these cities were akin to decor, a sort of a feature, like lesser Magical Creatures in a Dungeon.

Their seniors kept to a group by themselves, pointing and speaking loudly to stress their uncertain bravado. Gwen empathised with their nervousness. It was one thing to read and hear about the Lost Districts; quite another to be walking through one. Here in the courtyard, the Mages were reminded that there were dozens of them - and about a hundred thousand NoMs above and below them.

The Administrator, flanked by his guards, began a semi-guided tour as they walked and talked.

“We’re on the Ground Level,” he began. “From which the basement extends fourteen levels below, tapping into a leyline that powers the filtration, water, and power systems. It’s been many years since the old glyphs had seen maintenance - all intentional of course - the city itself has CCs it could exchange: simply that its denizens have chosen not to.”

“How so?” Gwen paced beside the old Mage, whose figure was short and portly.

“Autonomy means the right to make poor choices,” Choi chuckled, his eyes briefly scanning Gwen's figure. “I have given the Bosses, their Under-Bosses and the little tribes of people living here the choice of how to spend their CCs via a voting system, and guess what they spend it on?”

“Food and water?” Gwen inquired hopefully.

“Personal wealth, Magic Items, entertainment and HDMs for their Faction's Mages!” Choi laughed. “It would take only six months of the city's output to gather enough CCs in order to repair the filtration system. Another six months to upgrade it to the best system the PLA can offer. Who wouldn't want that? Better water, better living conditions, better health for everyone.”

“But they don’t?”

“Of course. That is the distilled nature of the scum that lives here. The 'lost' Hives exist as an exemplar. We give the people here the ‘democracy’ touted by the West. They can vote for what they want as they will, the only proviso is that their world begins and ends at the borders of 109.”

So that's whats up: a little slice of Orwell and a little slice of Atwood, Gwen thought sullenly, following the Secretariat's autocratic banter. These 'Lost Districts' were used to show the rest of Shanghai the pitfalls of not following the CCP’s vision for China. Almost a million people, condemned to the crucible of abject poverty to show the other 90% that the alternative to the Mageworld’s brand of benign socialist dictatorship was an exquisite kind of Capitalist Hell dominated by a warped, egocentric band of ruthless buccaneers.

“Has any of the Lost Cities ever improved their lot?” Mayuree asked beside Gwen. "Maybe save themselves? Return to the fold?"

“What do you think?” Choi eyed the Diviner bemusedly with a sideways glance, evidently with less enthusiasm than he had offered Gwen.

The tour continued.

“The superstructure extends across twenty-seven blocks, with an average height of forty storeys. The population is, as you can imagine, mostly NoM citizens, with roughly just under 0.02% of the population exhibiting magical potential, or are outright, low-tier Mages.”

"Mid-tier Mages operating within the city are mostly Enforcers or gang leaders of one sort or another. As for their abilities - most of them have never seen formal training. As elites, you should have little problem dealing with them, not to mention their first priority would be avoiding you at all costs. Should they sufficiently delay you, let me know. They'll be on the next Conscription shipment to the Front."

“Over there you can see a market. Yes, it looks derelict from here, but I assure you the interior is quite lively. There are over forty general market spaces for commercial ventures, operated by the gangs and the local merchant families, who could be just as vicious as the Triads.”

“Which Triads?” Gwen enquired. She had seen enough Hong Kong movie have developed a cursory knowledge of Triads.

“The usual: Shao-chilou. Black Dragons. Jade Tigers. Woshin. Wo-phowo, Buk-pu so on and so on. Mostly NoM organisations with a few Mages at the top. It’s nothing of concern, I assure you. They’re kept in line by a triumvirate of Bosses - Yi, Kha, and Lam. We found that once we cut off communication within and across the Lost Districts, the Triads soon became the local rabble. You’ll meet them soon enough. If you have questions, you can ask them yourself.”

“We’re meeting with Triad Bosses?” Gwen made a cute o with her lips. Shouldn’t they be fighting them? In all honesty, she had expected the ‘quest’ to be ‘subjugate Boss X’. That seemed like a perfectly reasonable request for a troop of Mages consisting of no less than three LCSS candidates and a bloodline-Diviner.

The Secretariat chuckled.

“I like to think of them as my lieutenants, NCOs if you will. They’re nasty people, but you need cruel and nasty managers for a place like this to run smoothly.”

Was the Secretariat being self-depreciative? Gwen wondered as they arrived at their destination.

The group now entered a set of double doors. The interior was somehow worse than the urban decay of the exterior. There were piles of garbage and filth filling the entire corridor leading to the cargo platform.

One of the PLA guards pulled on a chain, and the sliding doors yawned like the maw of some toothless beast, sliding back above and below to reveal a levitation platform abused by neglect.

Accompanied by the din of grating metal, the lift took them toward the top floor. When the doors opened, they were in a corridor with faded but plush carpet in maroon, leading forward until it reached a set of mahogany double doors.

The guards unlocked the doors and took up positions on either side. The student Mages followed the Secretariat into an open plan room with vermillion as a motif. Behind a conference table sat the emblazoned logo of the CCP, five stars soaring over the Forbidden Palace in red and gold.

Secretariat Choi took his seat and faced the student Mages, who stood across from their superior.

“Right, allow me to welcome you all yet again. I am Magus Choi, Secretariat of District 109 with the rank of Major under the People’s Liberation Army’s Shanghai Division.”

The second-years saluted the Major, their actions were quickly aped by Gwen and company, who snapped off dishevelled salutes with varying degrees of success.

“Per our agreement with Fudan, you will be given a quest to complete on-premise. Satisfactory completion of this request will give you 5 CCs per individual, though I am authorised to dispense up to 20 CCs pending your performance. Of course, this-”

“I am at your service!” Richard instantly declared, saluting crisply. “Please point us in the right direction, Sir!”

Gwen and company retracted their eyes from their usually calm and collected companion with evident amusement. When it came to CCs, Richard was a bloodhound. He was still leagues away from accruing the two thousand CCs needed to bring his parents over, an epic undertaking that would likely take him until the end of his University career and beyond, even with his applied questing credits.

“That’s the spirit, good man!” Choi congratulated Richard. “What’s your name, young Mage?”

“Richard Huang, Sir. Conjurer Abjurer, LCSS candidate.”

“I have high expectations for you, Richard.”

“Yessir!”

T-Ten points to Gryffindor! Gwen silently thought to herself. If only CCs were as easy to attain as House points. She wanted the CCs too, but she lacked the gusto to just blurt it out. From what she’d seen so far, the CC distribution was almost directly proportional to risk. 5 CCs to start meant the danger was likely minimal. If so - what was the 20 CC for?

“What would you like us to do? Sir?” Gwen enquired.

The Secretariat’s gaze lingered on her face bemusedly. Gwen couldn’t help but think that Choi reminded her of Caliban, her old world cat, when it caught something to torture, such as a skink.

“Your job is to help these ‘democratically elected’ individuals with some of their problems down in the lower stratum. Bui! Send them in!”

Another set of doors opened on the far side, and in came three human shaped metaphors for the industry within the Lost Districts.

The first was an obese, corpulent man whose eyes kindled like lit-tinder as his gaze fell upon the girls in the room, his eyes drifted past Gwen then plastered onto the diminutive Kitty, remaining transfixed as he sauntered forward laboriously.

The second Mage was a middle-aged woman who looked like someone’s mother had wandered into the wrong place. From the rigidity of her body language and the stocky solidity of her stout body, she was likely an accomplished Earthen Mage.

The last man was huge, a hulking figure almost seven feet tall. He was shirtless and heavily tattooed with writing and images from either Thai or Chinese scripture. The man possessed muscles that seemed to be grafted on top of muscles, indicating his Mage-class to be a CQC Transmuter. To Gwen, the bronze-skinned brute was living reminder of an unpleasant recollection.

Secretary Choi indicated to the middle aged soccer-mom.

“Mama Lam.”

He pointed to the half-man, half-papaya.

“Mr Kha.”

Then to Asian Schwarzenegger.

“Mr Yi.”

The three bowed: first toward Secretary Choi, making a full ninety-degree arch of their spine, then again toward the Student Mages to a lesser degree.

Three pairs of eyes licked over the students, notably Mama Lam, whose lips curled when she greeted Richard. What are we, meat? Gwen thought to herself, pondering the outlook of their present company; then again, what did she expect? Melt away their waxed exteriors, and the elites of the city would have the same naked expressions of lust and greed. She should applaud these people for their raw, undisguised honesty.

Out of curiosity, Gwen glanced over at Secretary Choi.

The PLA Major was smiling happily in his chair, his eyes formed into twin elongated slits.

It’s a bloody game to him! Gwen realised at once.

To the ‘Bosses’, this was a test of their allegiance and their ability to hold down their followers. Choi had no uses for underlings who could not toe the party line.

To the students, this was a test of their character, an opportunity to dip their feet in the mud.

But to Choi - they were a goddamned reprieve from the tedium of governing this shithole!


* * *

D-109 Eastern Boundary.

The thrum of a Sai-Ron White Ghost quietly rested against the chipped concrete wall. As the engine plinked against the cooling air, its lone female rider dismounted.

With impatience, she disconnected both ties and folded the chassis.

Lulan Li placed a hand upon the still-warm engine and allowed her mana to envelop the vehicle.

'Pssht!'

The bike disappeared into her Storage Ring.

The large Storage Ring was a reward from one of her Subjugation quests in an Orange Zone, an item that made many a young men in her Clan glower with jealousy. When she first demonstrated its conveniences in front of them, materialising and storing her bike - another spoil she had won, she had enjoyed watching their faces twisting with avarice.

Her favourite part of the pedantry was that her brothers-in-craft couldn't take it from her. It was attuned to her alone, a reward from the PLA Tower. Should she perish, her ring would return to the Tower, and not the Huashan Sect. Their impotent jealousy had provided her with endless delight.

Her one regret was that she could not gift it to Kusu, who still used a Medium Ring filled with his implements.

Her brother's daggers! Lulan gnashed her teeth unconsciously.

From that reminder came the thought of Gwen Song's smug face, of Kusu's humiliation, of his priceless implements. Of herself fleeing from Gwen Song when the red mist cleared from her head. Lulan felt her still swollen cheeks sting with remembrance. She thought of Pei's smiling face as he told her of the 'great' plan to kelp Kusu. Then her mind looped back to the humiliation two days ago.

Cao! Tamade cheating er-bi biao-zhi!

A taste of iron filled her mouth.

She had to do something.
She had to make Gwen Song capitulate.
She had to make her apologise to Kusu - in public.
She had to get Kusu's implements back, else her brother would be weakened for years to come!
She had to make right their names in the Clan!
She had to put the two of them back on to their Path!

Lulan's irises resumed the hue of wine.
Her Heart of Iron pulsed within her petite body, empowering her with supernatural strength and constitution.

“Stone Shape!”

The transmuted concrete - rebar and all, obeyed her will and parted.

For the average Earthen Mage, rebar concrete was impossible to navigate, but not so for Lulan, for her talent with stone was empowered by an equally powerful affinity with ferrous metal.

In front of her Transmutation empowered body, the ferroconcrete moved aside as though it was water and her surroundings were hydrophobic.

'Sha... sha... sha... sha...' The concrete melted away like wax, peeling back its fine sediments.

She began to traverse through the two-meter-thick barrier, moving downward through earth, concrete, and steel. 

She had to hurry.
Her quarry had already arrived.

 

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Wutosama

Bio: I write on the phone and edit at home. Times are tough!

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