Secretary Choi drank his Eight-Treasure Congee.
The chef at the Traditional-Medicine branch had told him it was too potent in Yang energy, but Choi enjoyed the sinew, the chew, the texture and the richness of the rice-broth.
"Sir, we have a breach on the Eastern Quadrant," his head of security, Bui, informed him.
Choi continued to sip his congee with an expression of absorption.
"Suspect is female, late teens. She was seen riding a compactable bike, and she is in possession of a large Storage Ring. Our informants describe her as an Earthern Mage, but she is able to Transmute the metal within the concrete as well."
Staff Sergeant Bui glanced over at his superior.
"I did offer an extra 20 CCs for extra labour, did I not, Bui?"
"You did, Sir."
"And you have distributed Magister Wen's Dossiers through the relevant channels?"
"I have, Sir. Why do you suppose..."
Choi took another sip from his soup.
"Our unexpected Guest? Sir? Should I send a team to..."
The secretariat drained the pot.
"Bui, you've been with me for what? A year now? Do you know why Fudan keeps sending their most talented Mages into this shithole? Year after year, incident after incident, casualty after casualty?"
"Experience, Sir?" Bui had a dark expression. The last time Fudan had sent over a troop of Mages, they had left behind a dozen corpses. To Bui, the citizens of D-109 may be denizens of the Lost Districts, but they were also citizens of Shanghai, to have them offered up for slaughter to blood some young Masters and Mistresses was the precise reason he loathed the old powers.
Choi played with the clay pot in his hands.
"Bui, do you know what a Gu is?"
"In Lingnan, several bloodlines of the Miao still remain, you know, the ones rumoured to have coupled with the Yuan-ti."
"Sir." Staff Sergeant Bui inclined his head slightly, informing his superior officer that he knew of the second, but not the first.
"They have very particular bloodline magic involving magical poison. To awaken their junior Mages, they must create a monstrosity of supreme toxicity by placing five or six, up to a dozen, poisonous Magical Creatures into a poison crucible."
"Once inside, a special incantation is used to make the creatures wild with hunger. They begin to hunt and kill one another, while the crucible's magic ensures that they cannot die from wounds, only from toxicity. Yet, as each creature consumes the next, it grows and grows in potency and power until one remains - one that possesses a superior venom drawn from all the others."
Bui's face paled.
"Then, they get the awakening Mage; usually a girl and usually a virgin - don't ask me why - and they have the girl place her hand inside the jar."
"The thing bites the girl, and she either awakens as a Poison Mage, or she dies, becoming a boil covered mass of flesh consumed by the poison. Her corpse becomes so necrotic and deadly that her remains are harvested to be applied to weapons, darts, whatever have you."
"That's terrifying, Sir."
"D-109 is a 'Gu', Sergeant Bui," Choi clarified for his pale subordinate. "The entire city, infested with Triads, NoMs, Slavers, Gangs, cults; now an unfriendly rival. What a wonderful 'Gu' for our student Mages to undergo."
"But..." Seargent Bui wanted to ask why a Magister would give out information on her students.
"Bui." Choi shook his head. "If you ask too many questions, you'll never make Lieutenant."
"The thing with a 'Gu'," Choi instructed his young officer patiently. "When there are so many vermin in the pot, Bui, who would notice if we slipped in one or two more?"
The Secretariat cackled to himself.
"It's not every day you get sanctioned killers from the upper echelon who ask no questions and know no one to clean up our mess!"
* * *
Gwen stood in the cargo elevator with her companions, enduring the ancient gravitation platform’s groaning and shifting as it descended toward B7.
As expected, her party was operating independently from their seniors, who had been given a separate quest by Madam Lam.
“Well, what do you think?” Richard asked the rest of them. As the eldest and the most experienced Adventurer, he was their de facto leader. “I want your individual opinions before we proceed.”
To Gwen's surprise, Kitty was the first to speak.
“Carrion Crawlers don’t just appear out of nowhere. Someone’s bringing them into the sub-levels, breeding them, that’s my opinion.” Kitty continued. “According to Aldous’ Urban Bestiary, Carrion Crawlers are found where large amounts of carrion can be accessed. They should be large in size, between five to six feet long on average. They secrete a paralysing ooze found in their saliva and bodily fluids which can paralyse creatures they touch. Usually, they do not prey on living beings, though if they become large enough, they are known to attack humans. Their medicinal p-”
“Thank you, Kitty,” Richard nodded affirmatively at the pixie girl. “That was very useful.”
Kitty inclined her head, then glanced at Gwen.
“The Filtration System are exchange-pillars using Conjuration and Transmutation glyphs, right? The Crawler could be holed up down there because of the mana-rich environment. A broken column could collate quite the mass of mana, given enough time. At any rate, if you can get me within twenty to thirty meters of the thing, I can tell you more.”
“There's too much mana interference in those rooms. I'll have to send in an Arcane Eye.”
“I see. Gwen?”
Gwen had been silent the whole trip down because she had been thinking about Boss Yi since they left the conference room.
It was Secretary Choi who issued the edict for the purge, but Boss Yi who provided them with the details. Yi had told them that Filtration Column B7-4-3, located on Basement 7 extending to Basement 4 had been out of commission for almost three months. The NoMs that made a living down at the sub-levels reported seeing a giant larva of some sort - pale yellow and worm-like in appearance, lurking in the general vicinity. It had supposedly been snatching up the sick and infirm at night and dragging them back into its lair.
Watching Yi's face though, Gwen suspected that the big man wasn't telling the whole truth. The reason being that he had glanced at Secretary Choi's face about four to five times while they conversed.
To test her theory, Gwen had turned to ask the Secretariat why the PLA didn’t send any Mages down to investigate, Choi joked that if they had done the job, what need would they have for students like Gwen.
Unperturbed, Gwen continued to question Boss Yi, who was very much forthcoming and liberal with his information, almost as if he was reading from a script. The area, he informed them, was out of their zone of control and therefore not their responsibility. Yi controlled the west towers of the Hive City, Lam controlled the East, while Kha controlled a section near the middle. Though their influence extended below Ground Floor in theory, the lower levels were usually inhabited by NoMs who had lived there for generations, becoming cloistered into a kind of incestuous tribe of 'Undercity' degenerates who had grown to love the shelter of the darkness. Ergo, they needed a third party to go down.
There were people like these in every Hive-City of the Lost Districts, Choi explained, once a few generations had passed, certain demographics tended to lock themselves into a cycle of self-abuse and poverty.
One time, the PLA tried to root them out, to ‘help’ the fallen citizens of D118 back into normalcy.
The 'Under-folk' chose instead to immolate themselves, destroying three levels of the lower strata, trapping close to 4000 souls in a boiling hell of choking miasma before the Tower Mages moved in and purged the whole section.
“A Lost District within a Lost District, hilarious no? Microcosms within microcosm! A crucible for the human condition!”
Choi seemed in love with the sound of his own voice. From the alliteration of it, he was delighted with the elegance of his Chinese prose.
He told her that since the incident, the PLA rotated lower strata citizens by lottery - elevating families to the surface levels, sometimes even the mid levels, to offset any desire at entrenchment into the sub-basement. Families who resisted the benevolence of their autocratic leaders simply disappeared, evaporated, ‘moved away’.
But no such systems existed within the Lost Districts.
“Kitty's right on the money. There’s a bigger problem down there than a loose Crawler, that's for sure,” Gwen began, informing her party about her suspicions on Yi.
“Yi has told us a lot. Where it is. What it is. What we should be expecting. But he averted every question as to how it got there, where it came from.”
“Let’s say I am being paranoid, its entirely possible it spawned due to an abundance of magic or a tear in the Prime Material; it would still mean that something is creating carrion down there, I doubt this place can afford to waste food. Crawlers are omnivores, but they feed on necrotic flesh, right? There's no agricultural industry here, there's a protein farm, but that barely keeps up with demand, which leaves us with an unpleasant prospect."
“Someone is making carrion. Dumping bodies. Someone is rearing these things intentionally. YET, our quest is just to kill one of these things - a specific creature in the location Yi gave - what do you guys suppose that implies?”
"Eww..." Mayuree made an unpleasant expression. "They're hatching targets for us to kill?"
"That's my theory, anyway." Gwen pieced together the circumstantial evidence. "Additionally, I am not sure what the other 20CCs are for."
"Maybe we will run into more than one Crawler?" Mayuree asked.
"Or other trouble," Richard added. "The Crawler's 5 CCs, what do you suppose could be worth 20?"
The party members regarded at one another.
"Let's keep an eye out," Richard informed them.
“Great.” Richard turned to the door. “We have to go through B7’s residential zone first. Eyes wide open. Mayuree, we’re in your safe hands. I’ll take the point. Kitty's on second. Mayuree’s third, Gwen, bring up the rear."
Mayuree launched into a dazzling array of self-buffs as the lift slowed and finally stopped.
Richard’s Undine appeared in mid-air.
Kitty’s eyes enlarged with self-evident longing.
“Lea, can you keep watch as well? Mayuree takes precedence, she has the weakest Shield.”
Lea inclined her head haughtily, shot Kitty a snide glance with her pale blue orbs, then shimmered before becoming invisible. As a high-ranked Spirit and a demi-Fey, she possessed both Flight and Invisibility at will. Richard once joked that rather than learning Fly himself, he could have Lea hold him up and sort of just ‘paddle’ through the air.
The cargo lift opened.
Basement level B-7 appeared before the Student Mages.
* * *
“Mistress Zalaam, they should be arriving. As you suspected, they’re headed for the area where Yi asked us to plant the Crawler.”
“Shukraan, Sui. Tell the others to be wary of the tall girl's Void spells. Get the handlers to send in the Crawlers first. Remember - I need her alive. The others don’t matter.”
“I shall endeavour to keep them 'all' alive for you, Mistress.” The woman known as Sui replied humbly.
“Where’s Zuyao now?”
“He was last seen proceeding through the western sewers, Mistress. The passage there should be safe before the rains hit.”
Nephres nodded with satisfaction. Everything was going smoothly so far. Her messenger to the Organisation was safely away. The trap-within-a-trap was set. Her naive lover had unknowingly sent the Student Mages her way. Best of all, when it happens - and it will happen - the blame would fall on Boss Yi. With any luck, it would also bring down that conniving Choi, the PLA hound guarding this place. Even from a distance, the man gave her the shivers.
She rechecked the Dossiers.
There was little on the young man called Richard other than that he had attended Princes and that he was related to Gwen Song. His parents were apparently not even tier 1 citizens. A nobody.
Richard Huang - Water - Abjuration - Conjuration. Nothing worth noting.
Mayuree - no last name - nothing on the girl other than that she was a Diviner.
Kitty Liang - Evoker - Transmuter - Ice - A sponsored Mage from the House of M. The girl could be problematic, but by that same measure, she was a grand prize.
As for the senior Fudan students, Lam had sent them elsewhere.
Nephres had hoped that the reports were more detailed, but this wasn’t the Frontier. Here they couldn't work their numbers into the stratum of the administration. Nephres recalled that her Mistress had mentioned Faceless was dead. The loss of the shapeshifter was a significant blow to the Organisation, for the creature had many identities that yet remained untapped. Nephres wondered if Faceless had been unique, or if her Mistress had more Doppelgängers under her command. Nephres always thought that it resembled the result of some infernal Conjuration, some sort of nightmare made flesh, like in the Odes of the Abyssian from her homeland legends, borrowing the skin of loved ones to fuel their malevolent existence.
Nephres thumbed the papers.
She couldn't help but feel a strange sense of nerves.
It wasn't a foretelling Divination, but nonetheless, she felt the unshakable buzz of peril. Call it instinct perhaps, or a woman's intuition. Nephres had enjoyed an outstanding track record of escaping harm, so far.
Her eyes fell upon Gwen Song’s Dossier. She would have to be extra careful with the girl in transit. It wouldn't do to have what happened to Edgar happen to her. Perhaps a drug? Or maybe a Stasis Unit. Yes. A Stasis Unit would be safest.
In front of her, Sui waited patiently for her Mistress' orders.
“Sui.” Nephres' voice was the promise of milk and honey. “Go, I want you to oversee the operation personally. May Anubis guide you.”
Sui touched her forehead to the ground and kissed Nephres’ feet.
“I will do as you command, Mistress.”
Nephres felt the soft caress of Sui’s lips. She wondered if her Mistress could feel, as she just did when Nephres prostrated and kissed her soft feet. Unlike her dark, honeyed skin, the Mistress’s complexion was always pale and flawless, cold as though Nephres was touching her warm lips to hoarfrost.
Hopefully, with this redemption, she would be seeing her Mistress soon.
* * *
Lulan Li was having second thoughts.
She had travelled all this way out of the CBD because within the city's public domain, she would have no opportunity to confront the Void Sorceress.
Gwen Song was a Power Progeny connected to the PLA, she was a favourite of the Dean, and she was protected by more than one Magister from the university. If Lulan were to challenge her within the teleportation range of the Tower, even assuming she succeeded in humiliating the girl, there would be hell to pay for her clan.
But here - here in the Lost Districts, she could fight her fair and square. Lulan could issue a challenge, and they would fight. There were no Magisters here to interfere.
That was what Lulan had thought at first, at any rate, when the red mist came down.
Now the mist had thinned, and gone was the fervour that had compelled her to traverse Fourth Orbital Highway to District 109.
Should she return? A voice of reason whispered faintly in the dark.
No, no! She needed to show Gwen Song the difference in their power!
Maybe then, Gwen Song would realise the error of her ways and return Kusu’s daggers, or at least offer reparations if she had destroyed them.
Somewhere at the back of Lulan’s head buzzed the idea that all of this was folly, that she was going to make things worse or make a fool out of herself, but each time that thought surfaced, it was overridden by a scene of Gwen Song standing over Kusu’s unmoving body.
She thought of Uncle Kwon screaming.
Pei giving them that smirk that he always affected.
Their father shaking his head and say that they took after their mother.
The Patriarch Li slapping their father on the back approvingly, then turn to Kusu with disapproving eyes.
Her bruised cheek burned.
Her jaws ached.
Her blood was up again. The red mist came on as dense as iron. It always felt the most potent when she was using her clan's unique talent.
Each time, Lulan would find her body in motion before she could think clearly. Brother had told her that it was the Yang energy. The more proficient she became with the Iron Sword technique, the more she was prone to these episodes.
Gradually, she became aware of her surroundings once more.
She was in one of those warren-like corridors in the lower strata. She was sure that this was still Building 3. Assuming Gwen and her friends went to the central area, she had to somehow get to Building 10 or 11. Perhaps, Lulan’s head felt heavier than usual, she should have thought about this a little more. How was she going to find Gwen Song? Comparing the appearance of the strata from her previous visits to the double-digit Districts, Lulan estimated that she should be in Basement 2. Once a Mage worked through the incredible thickness of the foundation, the concrete layer between the levels shouldn't be nearly as thick. She shouldn't have much further to go.
Her eyes scanned the corridor.
She was being watched.
“You!” Lulan broke her trance and strode toward an adjacent door, where a face quickly disappeared behind a shoddy wooden door. “Come out!”
It only took her a second to approach the barrier. As she arrived, there was the sound of a bar sliding into place.
She turned to the next door. Her eyes met something dark in the dimness of the corridor.
A quick self-buff and she was staring down a corridor a hundred meters deep and filled with just as many pairs of eyes staring at her with a mixture of fright and curiosity. Whenever they met her eyes, however, they shrunk behind their barriers and slammed closed their iron-wrought door. As her scarlet cat’s eyes swept across the darkness, the sound of doors closing was like a repeating echo ricocheting down the corridor until it twisted from her view.
How are these people seeing in the dark? Lulan felt equally impressed and disturbed by the acute timidity of the undercity's denizens.
She knocked on a few more doors to no avail.
Lulan resisted the urge to kick down the door. It was better to play it safe in a place like this. There was an ambient sense of hostility in the air that made her skin crawl, not to mention the stank of acrid ammonia made her eyes water. She would take the Orange Zone mountains and jungle any day than spend another minute in a place like this.
Her complexion took on the colour of rust. Where her fingers touched the rough walls, it raked and chipped the surface.
Building 11 was northward.
Maybe she could find someone deeper in who could tell her where the Fudan party had gone.
Lulan sauntered down the twisting passageway, her footfalls heavy against the pavement like the beating of a telltale heart.
Abruptly, her progress was interrupted by the sound of a scraping and screeching Levitation platform moving in the distance.
There! Lulan's heart soared. In the Districts, movement between the layers was rarely undertaken by the magically operated lifts. Only important guests, outsiders, and the building's administrators made use of the platform.
Lulan shot down the corridor, barging past the trash and the debris strewed across every surface. There were barricades too, but she ploughed past those with a single swing of her Conjure Blade.
The concrete walls parted.
A NoM family stared at the Transmuter, mouth open, as she appeared in their room, smashed through their dinner table, then disappeared again. From across the other side of the five-foot hole, their neighbours met their eyes.
Hmm, they thought to themselves. A few slats and they had an alcove for an additional bed.
A dozen more homes later, Lulan could no longer hear the lift.
Lulan became faintly aware as she ascended into the deeper levels of the East Wing that there was a great deal of groaning and moaning happening somewhere above her. This wasn't the sort of groaning associated with stressed metal, a sound she knew well.
There was also the tinnitus wail of those weeping in despair.
Lulan grimaced. She must have missed a critical turn.
There were whorehouses in the Districts. Lulan knew that.
As fitting as it was for Gwen Song to inhabit one, Lulan wasn't going to find her there.
The lift had been going down.
Lulan had quested in the Districts before and knew that it wasn't unusual for creatures to spawn in the magic-dense spaces below, no matter the warding put up by the Enchanters.
From the lay of the land around her, she could infer that somewhere below was a centre line that ran from one side of the superstructure to another, usually used by maintenance crews to access suppression systems or the underlying plumbing quickly.
When she broke past a concrete barrier into what she hoped was B-3 however, she appeared to have fallen into what seemed to be, for the lack of a better word, someone’s home, raising a cloud of dust and debris.
Lulan used the word ‘home’ lightly because she was in a cubical-hollowed out from what was once a small tunnel, padded and built up with salvaged wooden planks and painted over with what appeared to be tar. The resulting construct was a ‘room’ with a door, and now she had sliced through the roof and was standing in the ‘abode’ of whoever owned this place.
The door in front of Lu opened, revealing the filthiest man Lulan had ever seen. There was a sort of encrusted grime on the man that had almost become a part of his skin, making the man appear more southern than his Han facial structure first suggested. His clothes were likewise filthy, layers of unwashed stink piled upon one another until they were almost fused into a sort of cloth-armour.
Lulan felt immediately ill.
As the man opened his mouth to speak, a foulness Lulan dared not believe possible assailed her nostrils.
“Er-bi! How did a beauty like you get in here, eh? You from Madam Lam’s?Wocao! My house!”
“Shush! Shut up!” Lulan hissed. Madam Lam? The man thought she was a whore?! The nerve!
“Me, shut up?! Who the FUCK you think you are? EH? Sha-bi! You want to fucking die!? EHH!”
Lulan had never been treated this way in her life. Not even the Elders spoke to her like this when they beat her for insubordination.
Taking her timidness to mean she was afraid and helpless, the man came closer, made more brazen by Lulan's beauty which, in his eyes, was almost unearthly. Furthermore, the girl wore tight leather pants and a white singlet where he could see the white of her cleavage. No one ever wore clothes like that down in the Basement levels.
If the man had immediately recognised Lulan as a Sorceress, he would have fled the scene.
But the man had only seen Mages a few times in his life. By what logic would a Sorceress, a Deity-like existence, venture into his quarters? Furthermore, the girl was filthy with dust and grime, her clothes clearly soiled by passage through the ceiling. It was far more likely she had fallen down a collapsed tunnel somewhere and ended up in his abode. All's well ended well then, the man had thought. Maybe someone had heard his prayers of loneliness, eh? Hell, what if the girl had money on her, or food - either way, he could be traded her for something worthwhile, even if it's just a hot meal for returning Madam Lam’s property to the East Wing.
Lulan’s eyes widened in horror as the man reached out with scaly fingers, his parched lips dividing to reveal rotten teeth. The redolence was so ripe as to make her dizzy with revulsion and nausea.
The vagrant paused.
The girl's eyes. They looked like a cat's.
He felt a buzz of something in the air.
WOCAO! She's a Ma-
From an open slit between the Primary Elemental Plane of Earth and the Prime Material Plane shot a slab of iron in the rough shape of a sword, elongated and jaggedly formed from tip to pomme, resembling a flattened, rusty girder.
As it slid forward, the metal crashed into the body of the pauper, punching through flesh and bone with the ease of a stiff finger of reprimand piercing a sodden strip of tissue paper. There was a sound of crunching bone, wet and sudden, as the weight of the blade was freed, dipping forward and smashing tip first into the concrete floor, cracking the pavement.
It stuck there, several inches into the concrete, embedded into the floor.
Blood, guts and viscera cascaded over the singularly shattered rebar slab, splattering and splashing with a grotesque cacophony.
The door which the man had earlier opened remained ajar, hanging from a nail.
A dozen pairs of blood-rimmed eye stared in horror at the gore-soaked girl inside their companion’s abode, their mouths parted in terror.
"Monster!" someone screamed.
"Find the Boss!"
"Block her in!"
Hysteria suddenly filled the shack-strewn corridor of Access Tunnel B-7, the sound of clattering feet, screaming voices, beating sheets of galvanised iron, women’s screaming, men crying Blue murder, the crash of bodies against bodies filled the tightly wound space of the tunnel’s circumference.
To Lulan, it felt as though the world had suddenly gone insane. Why couldn’t these NoMs just shut the fuck up! How was she going to find Gwen Song in all of this chaos?!
Her face felt sick with filth.
There was a sudden taste of iron on her tongue, as well as Mao knows what else was inside the man.
The red mist descended.