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A note from Wutosama

Getting this out tonight.

Been sitting on this for almost a week now. Too sleepy to edit yet anothe pass. 


Basement level B7 - Market Quarter.

Gwen had expected a scene from the undercity of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. What she saw was a Saturday Bazaar from Market City in Sydney relocated into a tunnel network, inundated with customers and traders.

Originally built with the intention of moving heavy-plant, the tunnels were impressive in height, with a diameter of close to seven metres. Criss-crossing passageways further served as junctions where stands and stops met, densely populated with people who now stared at Gwen and company with grinning faces.

“Nihao! The Boss said yer was coming,” a greasy fellow with an indistinct face hidden behind grease and grime hailed them. It was impossible to tell if their guide was man or goblin, but given the time and place, Gwen and company gave him the benefit of the doubt. “Come this way, Mister and Missus Bosses.”

Gwen wrinkled her nose, there was a faint smell of sewerage, musky human sweat, and pressed body odour that oppressively hung in the air. Thankfully, the Mages had come prepared for such a thing. A little Prestidigitation about their attire and mundane foul odours could be held at bay.

Furthermore, Gwen noticed as they stepped into the tunnel, was that the floor was covered by some sort of sawdust or sand-like substance which kept it relatively clean.

The NoMs here had been supremely industrious, with wooden structures built into the sides of the tunnels and even hanging from the ceiling. Shacks, shanties, shops and shelters in stacks of three or four, piled five or six deep against the slanted curvature of the walls haphazardly.

Weakly glimmering Light spells in lanterns likewise hung from every surface of these structures, painting the scene with vivid hues of soft ambience that played softly through the smoke and steam.

To Gwen, the B7 Market ward was strangely aesthetic - a far cry from the urban decay of Blackheath. It felt as though the people here had decided that since the upper tiers were out of reach, they may as well make life below tolerable, feasible, worth living; rather than fall into the sort of abject purposelessness she’d seen in ghettos elsewhere.

To her old world sensibilities, the slums here felt more Mumbai than it was Calcutta, especially the heartache of the Shibpur district which Gwen had regretted touring. Though both were filled with abject poverty, one possessed industry, filling the viewer with hope. As for the other; one was sternly reminded that God was dead and humans could be real bastards, moved to maliciousness by the slightest suggestion of currency.

“Stick close,” Richard advised. “If you have to move around an obstacle, move no more than four meters from my side.”

“We’re being watched,” Mayuree said suddenly. “One Mage, low-level mana signature, 2 O’Clock.”

“I see them,” Kitty whispered.

“Don’t look,” Mayuree advised.

“Lea,” Richard intoned softly.

Something invisible moved through the space above the Mages.

The student Mages followed their guide further into the markets.

The residents of the dark alternated between wanting to gawk at them, especially the girls, and being too afraid to raise their head in case the subjects of their curiosity visited wrathful displeasure in return.

Gwen once again applauded her foresight of earth-pastel and pants, wondering if Kitty’s choice of ultramarine was a symptom of her own naive decision-making in Blackheath.

Comparatively, Mayuree’s garb, though not flamboyant nor suggestive, was the most attention seeking. Unlike Gwen, Richard and Kitty - she didn’t have a single spec nor splash of mud or dirt on her. In a place where Magic Items were hen's teeth, it was self-evident to their keen public that her attire was magically enchanted from head to toe. Knowing the cost of Mayuree's gear, Gwen wondered if any NoMs were unwise enough to risk life and limb for sufficient HDMs to feed their family for the next decade, or two.

The outing was advertised as an excursion, but the student Mages had all known that there would be some mild adventuring involved, especially that which put them in intimate contact with the NoMs. Mayhap next time, Gwen thought - the team could coordinate outfits as to appear less like a touring band, and more like working Mages.

When they passed a particular junction with a delicious smell, Gwen couldn’t help but be drawn to the sound of sizzling fat.

She soon caught sight of the smell's source, slabs of mystery meat on skewer smoking famously over charcoal.

“What is that?” Mayuree enquired as the party came closer.

“Looks like…” Gwen moved to block her view because her eyes caught the origin of the mystery skewer.

An old man, grinning happily at her, reached into a cage and produced what must be a mole of some sort, or a rat, or a gerbil, Gwen couldn’t tell in the dim light. With a deft swing of something like a switchblade, he gutted the squealing thing, threw its offal into a bowl, then used a three-pronged iron skewer to crucify the carcass so that it looked as though the hamster was being propped like a sock-puppet.

With the lemming's adorable face frozen in stunned disembowelment, the man flashed it over the charcoal; its fur fell away, revealing a rapidly crisping body of pink flesh sizzling with fat.

“Hey, Beauty! Free for you!” The man offered the visiting Mages a free sampler - a rare and generous offer; nothing was free in the undercity, least of all food.

Mayuree looked as though she was going to faint right there and had to be supported by Kitty, who was thankfully unfazed by the spectacle.

If Gwen were still her Sydney self, she would have battered the skewer away. After almost half a year in Shanghai though, she was a veteran culinary traveller, seasoned in outlandish gastronomical ventures from China and beyond.

Seeing that she was not adverse, the man heavily seasoned the greasy prize and spun it until it's flesh was al dente - chewy but still tender.

Gwen took the skewer and thanked the man.

What had Magister Wen said?
She was immune to all mundane disease and infections, right?

Watched by her companions, she took a bite.

“Tastes like chicken.” Gwen chewed. “Hmm, a little slimy, but satisfying. I’d call it an acquired taste. The spice tastes a little cumin and pecan, with a delightful crunch. You’ll learn to like it, I am sure.”

Her friends declined Gwen's offer.

As they passed, the seller began to holler.

"Best Rat! Best RAT in B7! Mage and Sorceress Approved! Get your RATS here! JUICY RATS! FRESH! 50 MSK!"

The party soon passed another stack of shacks.

“Oh Jesus.” Gwen heard the commotion before their eyes could be sullied with the spectacle. “Mayuree! Cover your eyes!”

“I am older than you!” Mayuree snapped at Gwen, realising way ahead of her companion what lied ahead. "You've never even had a boyfriend! Shouldn't you be the one who's worried?!"

It was only reasonable that the oldest profession in the world would thrive in a place where human life was cheap and abundant.

Their first sight of the four-storey abode of negotiable affection came in the form of a diaphanously dressed woman who waved at them; her sensuous flesh undulating and quivering passionately as the Mages rounded the corner.

Richard’s optics locked on for a few appreciative moments, then moved on. Mayuree, however, stared at the flapping flesh with her lips parted in frustration and fascination.

“Udder madness!” she muttered to herself. “Mao! Monstrous! Monstrous I say!”

As the group passed the brothel, the door opened to reveal an evidently intoxicated patron whose eyes lustily fell upon Gwen’s party.

“Hei hei! You young ladies new?” he blurted out before one of the working girls could drag him back in.

The space that formed around the patron was instant.
The man’s complexion turned to ash as adrenaline defeated alcohol.

“Shit! S-sorry! Please forgive me! Mistresses!” He fell to his knees, covering himself in the silt of grim and wastewater, slamming his head against the ground repeatedly until he bled profusely.

Gwen had a mind to stop her companions from acting out unnecessarily, but there was no need. Kitty, who had looked as though she was about to throw a Bolt at the intoxicated NoM, shook her head with disgust before pushing Mayuree ahead of her.

The group moved on, leaving behind a field of rime rimmed puddles where Kitty had entertained the thought of punishment.

“We’re close,” their guide stated, taking no heed of the commotion. “The Filtration section is just up ahead.”

“How're our guests?” Gwen whispered to Richard, taking advantage of the distraction to check up on their watchers.

“Following rather inexpertly through the crowd, I am spotting at least three. Lea says there’s four.”

“Six, actually.” Mayuree’s voice rang beside their ears. As a middle-tier Diviner, she could utilise Mass Message and Silent Message almost at will. The Divination Towers set up by the communication companies were magic devices mimicking the function of Divination Sigils. “You guys have no idea how easy it is to spot Mages in a place with virtually all NoMs.”

“Are they after our party?” Gwen asked.

“Looks like it,” Mayuree reported. “They’re convening and talking about us, Wanna hear?”

“You’re serious?” Gwen interjected. “You can…”

“Clairvoyance or Scry, take your pick.”

“Ho ho, what’s more discrete?” Richard laughed.

“Clairvoyance. I am casting it now. Keep moving.”

As the group continued to move, Mayuree opened a second channel in her Message array.

“Status report.”
“Almost at the entrance.”
“What’s team 2 doing.”
“On standby. Near the target.”
“Waiting on them.”
“Is it true they doubled the fee?”
“Yeah, triple for if they’re alive.”
“They’re from Fudan though…”
“If they resist….”
“I like the tall one.”
“We should kill the guy. The girls we can keep around.”
“As if. Nephres is moving out the Merchandise almost immediately.”
“I don’t know, they’re Fudan kids, they have power people up top…”
“Go home then. I wonder what Nephres will think of your cowardice, eh?”
“We can buy enough food for half a year if this succeeds.”

“Slavers, or robbers, or Triad,” Gwen stated coldly, her voice harmonised by Mayuree into their shared Message array, one that only mid-tier Diviners could formulate. “I’ve dealt with them before. They regularly abduct the local Neophytes who awaken and sell them for parts or as merchandise. Sometimes, they find someone with a rarer talent, and they get a little ambitious for their own good.”

“A bit too daring.” Kitty frowned, likewise sceptical. “Marong would kill every man, woman and child here if something were to happen to Mia. Hell, I would do it too if they dared lay a hand on her.”

“Let’s not go that far,” Gwen felt her scalp crawl at Kitty’s nonchalance. “It’s not like the citizens here are trying to harm us.”

“The NoMs are in on it too,” Kitty stated. “Why do you think this area is so prosperous? Where do they get the money for the mana? The water? The food? The wood? You think they can mine for crystals here?”

“A third power then? An outsider party?” Richard asked. "We met the bosses upstairs, right? They would be kneedeep in shit if they tried to impede or harm us. Secretariat Choi would skin them alive."

“Boss Yi is playing both sides then? Do you think secretary Choi knows?”

“Choi did offer 20 CCs for... something else,” Richard said thoughtfully, then shook his head. “No, this is too stupid. It’s just not worth it. I could solo these guys. With the four of us, they wouldn't even last five spell exchanges.”

“Shush!” Mayuree interrupted them suddenly. “Something’s happening. Two guys just came down another tunnel. I am bringing them through now.”

“Fuck. We need help. Some crazy-biaozi is carving the place up on B2.”
“Impossible, how did she get in? Where she from? Triad?”
“They’re getting too close to the target site. Mistress says the Fudan Mages take top priority.”
“Fine, take Liu to intercept. We’re proceeding to the original meeting point.”
“We don’t have enough people!”
“Tell the NoMs to go.”
"They are spell fodder."
“Leave them, Nephres said she’ll take care of it. We have our own job.”
“No! We need at least another two teams, give me Lu! That Biao-zi killed Lin and Pan already! She-" 
“Shut up. Don’t make a scene.”
“S-Sorry! It’s just that-"

“What do you think?” Mayuree asked her companions.

“Well, I am personally a big fan of ambushes. Especially reverse-ambushes.” Richard grinned. “Gwen?”

“Let's see what they have in store for us first, shall we? Mia, how far can you Scry?”

“Not very far if I've never been there - I can send out an Arcane Eye though. We’ll see everything, but it'll take longer.”

“Any chance we might get detected?”

“None, I don’t sense a Diviner near. There’re also no Divination Relays in here, by the way. No Message devices. I am routing your Message spells through my Sigil with a Silent-spell suffix applied. I don’t think their Mages can actually talk to each other except face to face.”

“Poor sods,” Gwen noted. "The hunter becomes the hunted."

“Alright” Richard cracked his neck. “Say, reckon some of those CCs could be for busting a Slaver's syndicate?”

The rest of the party chuckled, even Kitty couldn’t help but smile.

“Can you contact our Seniors going to the West section?” Gwen asked.

“Too far,” Mayuree replied. “We're too deep in.”

“Let’s hope for the best then.” Gwen couldn’t help but feeling that bringing along a bloodline Diviner like Mayuree was cheating. Mia might lack DPS, Defence and Utility - but by God, her omniscient Intelligence made up for raw power ten-fold. Was this what its like to Adventure with a Diviner? To know what your enemies' progress, their locations and tactics, even listen in on their planning sessions? Insanity!

Ahead, the Fudan party's guide glanced behind as the student Mages conversed silently, occasionally grinning foolishly. In their flamboyant clothing, they looked like state visitors during the New Year Festival. When he’d heard that the city was going to get genius Mages from Fudan, he was half expecting Demi-Gods.

These just look like anyone else up above, the ones who had access to clean water and could see the light. They were most definitely mortal.

Heh! The guide thought to himself, feeling supremely confident of his bluffing skills. These uppity young Mages don’t know what they’re in for! Maybe once they were hogtied and incapacitated, even a man as low as he could have a go at giving them a swift kick up the bum.


* * *


Nephres was not a happy woman right now.

Moments ago, her NoM scouts had reported that Gwen Song was now physically progressing toward the trap they had laid for the Fudan Mages.

Then one of her backup crew just informed her that there was a third Fudan party that just barged in.

According to witnesses, the intruder was a lone-wolf Transmuter from Fudan in the upper basement levels making her way towards Gwen Song’s party. She wasn’t on the dossier list, but from the blabbering tongue of the survivors, the girl was trying to reconvene with her companions, and she wasn't adverse to ultraviolence.

The girl had apparently freaked out when confronted by some of the undercity's less than savoury residents, who had mistaken her for a whore from Madam Lams. Now, she was hacking her way through the natives like a red-hot knife through rancid butter.

Usually, Nephres wouldn’t care - the NoMs could all die tomorrow from a Cloud Kill, and she wouldn't care. But she couldn’t allow anything to intervene with her grand plan of ascension. Nephres wanted to return to her mistress’ side, or at least 'not' be stationed at a place as run down and filthy as the Lost Districts, and this was a God-given opportunity she could not afford to miss. For Nephres, whoring, gambling, fighting, drinking the honeydew of paradise - they were all fine and dandy in small doses, but in excess, vice rapidly lost its allure. There was only so much debauchery one could take before longing for the light of gardened terraces and a mug of Elven tea overlooking a shimmering skyline.

Nephres arrived at the B5 Guardhouse with her bodyguards in tow - a Senior Evoker and Sui, who was an earthen Transmuter, invaluable for a place with so much concrete.

“How’s it looking?”

She could smell the stench of blood even before she entered.

Inside was a dozen mangled bodies, alive but groaning. Nephres clicked her tongue.

“Tell me what’s happening.”

One of the Mages spat out a mouthful of clotted blood onto the floor.

“S-She came through the vents on B4 - just fell right on top of us. Don’t know who she is, but her spells look like Signature spells from one of the Sword-clans. She conjures some sort of iron-slab, which she uses to attack both up close and at a range. It b-blocks projectile spells too.”

Nephres furrowed her tapered eyebrows. That was the problem with these bloodline Mages. Their abilities were always outside the reasonable scope of potential solutions.

“What is she, a Magus? A Magister?”

“Her destructive potential is definitely Magus level.” The man winced, then persisted in coughing up more blood. “Shit, the healing potion was subpar. Cao! Made in China injectors!”

Nephres sighed. There was no helping it.

“Mass Cure Light Wounds!”

As much as she loathed helping these useless meat bags, they were still useful to her. With a simple incantation, she suffused the surrounding space with Positive energy. Jolts of emerald mana sought out their targets within the spell’s range and restored the wounded Mages.

Wounds closed, bloody stumps staunched. Pain ceased.

“Thank you, Boss!”
“Thank you!”
“You’ve saved my pi-gu!”

Words of praise from trash such as these meant little to Nephres, who took their compliments with a smile.

“I hope you’re not just throwing yourselves at her like roasted lemmings, where is she now?”

Nephres received her answer in the form of a crashing cacophony close enough to be audible.

“Is there a vantage point we can see?” she asked. Not having access to Divination was a pain. The presence of any Diviners in the Lost Districts was a great taboo that Secretary Choi enforced with an iron hand. When the iron fist of the CCP descended, it seldom spared innocents.

“Yes, Missus Boss, this way.”

Nephres followed the street Mage until they were at a set of service tunnels caught between B4 and 5. There were innumerable such tunnels built for access and maintenance by the Hive’s original designers, but they had all been turned into rat warrens by the NoMs eking out a living in the under-city.

The sounds of something dull and iron striking concrete became more prominent as they approached their destination until finally, Nephres saw first-hand the scene of the intruder's butchery, filtered through slitted vents corroded by the acrid air.

There she was, a lone, female Sword-Mage, soloing her Mage-team below.

The Clanner wore a stained-white singlet and what looked like biker's leathers, from the looks of which was enchanted against wear and tear. Her hair was now wet with gore, her twin irises concentric rings of rusty red, from the way she swung the heavy iron blade through the air without a care, the girl seemed to Nephres to be not entirely conscious of her actions.

Hmm, Nephres made a note of the girl’s strange demeanour. The girl below reminded Nephres a little of the infamous Blade Dancers from the Temple of the Jackal God. Those women too could manifest themselves as engines of whirling destruction, aided by their faith in the Jackal-headed, and a little potion that momentarily took away pain and fear, as well as inducing a sublime euphoria.

With a deft swing of a hand or her arm, the Sword Mage summoned a massive chunk of rusted metal - roughly in the shape of a sword but more akin to an oxidised slab of rough-hewn metal.

“Broad Strike!”

“Thrust!”

"Sweep!”

Nephres observed the girl carefully. As an experienced healer, she could use a Clerical form of Detect Magic used for medical diagnosis. From what she could see, the girl's conduits were a mess. Observing the mass of rusty mana swelling about her person, Nephres could see that the Sword Mage had a catalyst agent embedded into her chest which was now infused with her body.

Interesting. Nephres thought. Another potential treasure to be unearthed. Body-changing techniques that messed with the mana-channels a Mage naturally developed were both ancient and rare. The girl would make an exceptional specimen, dead or alive.

Not far from the girl, Nephres’ Abjurer was holding her off with Walls and Shields, sending the Sword Mage into a frenzy of futile frustration. They were trying to tire her out, Nephres realised. What faithful employees! Even risking their lives, her minions were thinking of the bottom-line.

Then the Sword-Mage began to holler.

“GWEN SONG! WHERE ARE YOU!”

“COME OUT! YOU BITCH! STOP HIDING!”

The girls’ voice reverberated through the lower levels, ricocheting off the walls with a metallic jangle.

“ARRRRGH!”

She hurled a length of iron toward one of the Abjurers, striking the Earthen Shield with such force that it penetrated the exterior and would have crushed the Mage cocooned within had the Sorceress been sufficiently lucid to direct her aim.

Merciful Jackal God below, Nephres exhaled. That’s some striking power!

Her Mages weren’t the likes of those in Fudan - they were mostly independents who attained tier 3 and 4 without instructions from caring Elders or wise Lecturers. Their spells lacked speed and finesse, but their mastery was more pragmatic and practical.

Across the service tunnel, the Sword Mage was swinging tirelessly.

Nephres watched the girl hammer away like a blacksmith, her mana barely diminishing.

They were certainly not going to subdue her at this rate.

Did Gwen Song murder the girl's father or something? Nephres couldn’t help but hope for a more coherent narrative. The girl's killing intent was so overpowering that she was tasting iron on the tip of her tongue.

"You!"

Nephres turned to the Mage who had summoned her and shot the young man a look of contempt and displeasure.

“Does that look like someone who’s the Fudan party's ally, you idiot?” she snapped at the stunned Mage. The problem with these Lost District Mages was that despite years of cultivating power and talent, they lacked basic education. To Nephres, they were effectively Magically empowered imbeciles.

“She wasn't screaming like a fengzi before.” The man lowered his eyes.

Nephres turned back to the girl.

“How long has this been going on?”

“Almost an hour now, Missus Boss.”

Nephres turned to the scene below contemplatively. The girl’s attacks suggested she wasn’t about to be OOM anytime soon.

The problem was that if they were expending personnel keeping this girl in check, then who could guarantee that the operation in B7 was going to be properly provisioned? Nephres was experienced enough to know that these progenies of the powerful always had some trick up their sleeve - mostly Contingency Rings, but potentially, they could have scrolls of higher Magics, triggered Magic Items, or even means to summon extra-dimensional creatures. The only way to suppress them was through an ambush, and to do that she had to be personally present; there were no other Mages in the city with the relevant talent to keep her Mages, and the beasts topped up as they ground down the student's mana. As young Mages, the Fudan Mages should not have had much time to acquire an extensive mana pool.

“Get a runner down there, tell them to hold their position until we engage the Fudan students. If the girl wants Gwen Song so badly, we’re going to bring her a gift. Make sure the handlers are well hidden, full lockdown. They are not to reveal themselves without my express say so.”

Her runner was off at once.

Nephres stayed to watch the girl for a few more minutes. There was a trail of blood leading away from the Sword Mage and toward the dark recesses of the B4 complex. From the viscera that splattered the walls, it was evident that the girl was accustomed to the sight of blood; an average Student Mage would have lost their nerve upon seeing the sight of human offal.

Not even Nephres felt immune to the sight of such coagulant gore.

Sometimes, a well-flung trail of intestinal tract could go for six to seven meters. Then there was the stench of ruptured stomach acid and shit, it was not something an average Mage, much less one trained in a walled garden, could endure.

Nephres was confident between their Sui's Transmutation and Liu's Abjuration, they could lead the girl down two more levels toward the target zone. Then, all they had to do was wait for Gwen Song's party to engage, and they could send her blasting down the tunnels full of red-eyed rage.

Nephres couldn’t help but allow a smile to touch her lips.

This was going to be more interesting than she thought.

 

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Wutosama

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

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