“It’s almost seven…” Mina bit her lower lip, irritated by the delay.
“You can go first.” Petra shrugged. Before Gwen brought the party together, she had spoken to her second cousin about a dozen times in total.
“I'd rather not, the two of you wouldn’t make it in time,” Mina replied, her tone anxious with agitation. “Tao’s performance starts at eight, it'll be pointless if we arrive and he's already given up the match.”
“Gwen is on an important call, be patient.” Petra regarded Mina. It wasn’t that she was looking down on Gwen's paternal-side cousin, though that was certainly true due to their height difference. She simply felt that Mina and Tao weren’t on the same plane as Gwen and herself.
Petra enjoyed Gwen’s companionship because they were alike in many ways. They both came from difficult familial circumstances. They both had dealings that tied them to Towers. They both had coveted magical abilities. They both had futures filled with conflict and uncertainty.
Their parallel paths made them perfect allies, partners, comrades.
But Mina and Tao?
Two greenhouse Fu-er-dai growing up in a Tier 1 city, not knowing wind nor rain, hunger or pain. Their greatest trial would be who to marry, how many kids they should have, their violent reckoning was whether or not keeping a lover was a plausible balance between wanton desire and social propriety.
Mina stamped her feet, striding up and down the corridor.
“These damn shoes are killing me!” Mina hissed, pulling at her ankle-straps.
Not an easy-going individual either, Petra shook her head imperceptibly. Even if Tao were to lose his bet, it was nothing Petra would consider worthy of her sympathy. The bruised ego of an Illusionist nobody, and the loss of a car. Who cares about a car? A quasi-magical device made for NoMs and Mages alike? The Audi wasn't even the military variety. She wondered if Gwen could fathom the value of the Regeneration Cube she had expended on Lulan. At the right moment, in the right hands, the spell in that cube could have secured a whole demesne.
Human life, after all, was priceless. The higher the power one amassed, the more wealth one accumulated, the more value one placed on life itself.
The levitation platform slid open, revealing a sprinter's figure in shorts and a tank top.
“Miss Kutznetsova!” Lulan’s eyes swept over Petra, dumbfounded by her revealing attire. “H-Hello!”
Speak of the devil, Petra hailed the Sword Mage amiably.
“Hello, Miss Li. What’s the matter?”
Lulan held several takeout boxes in her hand.
“I brought some sweets for Miss Song…” She tore her eyes away from Petra to greet Mina. “Greetings, Miss?”
“Mina. Mina Wang. I am Gwen’s cousin.”
Lulan bowed hastily.
Petra’s lips curled sardonically despite herself.
Ten Mina Wangs would not be able to resist a single full-forced blow from Lulan Li. If Gwen’s tale of the Sword Mage's slaughter was anything to go by; 'Lulu' was someone Petra wouldn't mind being acquainted with.
“Gwen, Petra and I are all going out together,” Mina stated cattily, her tone unconsciously more churlish than she intended. “She’s on a call right now.”
“I’ll wait.” Lulan stowed the takeout boxes in her ring.
Mina’s well-honed eyes of appraisal narrowed.
“That’s… a Large Storage Ring?” Mina knew her exorbitant rings like the back of her hand.
“Yeah.” Lulan paid the question no mind. 'Her' ring technically belonged to the Tower. As such, she had never thought of it as something precious. It was a reward, a tool. She wouldn't trade it away, and she couldn't sell it. When she died, Kusu couldn't keep it. “Where are you all going?”
“To the Astoria, for the Battle of Rhymes.” Mina’s tone took on a less critical demeanour. A girl with a rare ring couldn't just be anybody. “My brother's competing.”
“Oh, a duel! I do love those. My brother and I often compete,” Lulan boasted a little sheepishly, mindful of how Kusu's last duel turned out. “What’s the Waldorf Astoria?”
“Ha?” Mina chortled, wondering if Lulan was from one of those Frontier families. “It’s a hotel, one of the oldest in Shanghai. It was built in the 20s in the International Quater by British expatriate Mages who wanted it to be the grandest establishment in the Pearl of the Orient.”
"Oh? That sounds amazing." Lulan's expression suggested that Mina's words may as well be rain splatters against a window.
“Why don’t you come with us?” Petra cut in unexpectedly. “Gwen would love it if you could come.”
“To the duel?” Lulan’s eyes lit up.
Mina caught Petra's attention, then blinked rapidly.
“Something like that.” Petra smiled brilliantly, making Lulan weak at the knees. “Mina, you don’t mind, do you? This is our new friend. She’s a brilliant Sword Mage and an important asset for Gwen.”
“You're a Clanner?” Mina’s brows furrowed.
“Not anymore.” Lulan shook her head stiffly. Now that her thoughts were clarified and lucid, she couldn't help but become hypersensitive to her interaction with others. Socialising was harder than it looked, Lulan moped internally. She had no idea what either of Gwen's 'cousins' was thinking and couldn’t help but feel that she was being wielded like a proverbial sword for their amusement.
“It’s complicated," she replied uncertainly.
Thankfully, her awkwardness was short-lived.
“Lulu!” Gwen’s voice called out as the door to 2204 clicked shut behind her.
Mina checked her watch. 7.20 PM. They could just make it if she dodged and weaved through traffic.
“Let’s go then!” Mina had no more time to debate the merits of including a fourth member. “Come on Lulu.”
“Whatever, get in Lulu, we're going clubbing!”
Gwen came jogging, her heels clicking against the tiled flooring of the corridor.
Lulan felt a touch of pink on her cheeks as she stood behind Gwen. The Void sorceress had on an outfit more daring than she believed possible! In her mind, Gwen was a Battle Mage, a summoner of fiends, a flying avatar of lightning and thunder sowing death amongst her enemies.
But a vision of loveliness? Lulan felt as though she was seeing Gwen for the first time. What was she wearing? Her footwear offered no protection! Those heels looked like chopsticks! Her legs were dangerously exposed! Lulan's nostrils flared, simultaneously scandalised and over-stimulated.
She had never been told to be feminine before, the most daring thing she had ever done involved a makeup kit she'd discovered in one of the servant's quarters. When Lulan had examined the result of her curious labour in the mirror, she quickly reached for a towel and wiped away any evidence of her experimentation.
“Lulu is coming with us?” Gwen gushed excitedly.
“No-no-no!” Lulan waved her hand frantically. How could she stand beside Gwen? Next to Miss Kuznetsova? By the Iron Sword! The very thought of it terrified her. It was incredible to think that Gwen and her cousins were going to witness a battle in those shoes and that dress. What happens when a melee ensues? What if one of them received an elemental attack that penetrated their Shield? Lovely as their mundane clothes were, they were as flimsy as they were beautiful. There was also the fact that her wardrobe consisted of entirely pants, tops, and singlets. “I don’t have anything nice to wear.”
“I’ll lend you some,” Gwen was about to drop a few more minutes on getting Lulan dolled up, but Mina was at her limit.
“MAO! WE’RE LATE!” She polymorphed into a mother hen. “GO! GO! GO!”
She pushed the threesome into the lift despite Lulan’s feeble protests.
“In the CAR NOW! WE GOT TO GO!”
* * *
Bombastic-beats reverberated through the basement of the Astoria.
“Mmmm you gonna give it up, Son?” Sammy Gu, Big SAM, wordsmith extraordinaire, mercilessly mocked his rival, Big Peaches, AKA Peaches, AKA Tao Wang of Wang Xing Enterprise.
“Fuck you, I ain’t no liar!” Tao retorted. “How about you face me with wicked rhymes and fight it out like real men, huh?! You wanna be the kingpin or you gonna pussy out?”
“That’s YOUR bet you're trying ta worm out of, fool, don't play me with your third-grade bull, little man!”
“Peaches don’t need no bitches to beat your ass down to a pulp! Your rhymes so lame when you try to bring it, you choke on your own vomit, piggy~!”
“Kick his ass!”
“Nice one! Peaches!”
The room was dim, hazy and filled with moving bodies; the air was rank with tobacco, body odour and a hint of medicinal herb.
Usually, the establishment would have refused to lease the subbasement level to individuals such as these, whose presence would bring infamy to the noble visage of the Waldorf hotel chain - but the one who had made the request was the sole heir of the Wang Xing Group.
The General Manager was about to pull out his hair when he had a sudden epiphany. Out of sight! Out of mind! He immediately told the staff to clear out the basement level and hastily erect a stage. According to Tao Wang, they would bring their own music. Silence enchantments had been set up both above and below so that their riotous foreign music would be contained within the sandwiched layers of aural fortification.
So far, Tao had been talking shit for almost ten minutes straight. Their match had begun nearly a quarter of an hour ago, but Sammy Gu refused to participate due to Tao's poorly contested gamble. Unless Tao could prove Petra Kutznetsova, the ‘flower of Fudan’ and Gwen Song, the ‘hottie cousin with a Mongolian Death Worm’ were his ‘bitches’, Tao had to apologise for being a liar, then quit the stage.
“Come on! Come on!” Tao was sweating buckets underneath his mocking demeanour. Where the fuck was Mina?! She’d promised to bring the girls!
“Yo such a little bitch, Peaches.” Sammy shifted his weight impressively. “I think you’re lying about them, cuz yo face is as ugly as dat Petra’s ass is FINE!”
“Goddess yoga pants!”
“Sammy, you suck!”
"You just pus-"
“TICK-TOCK! Mother fucker! I have no idea how a fine thing like yo mama gave birth to a stain like you, Peaches. You so ugly, you went to the Northern Front, and they mistook you for a ghoul!"
I'd CAONI-MA, but she's too fat! Toa retorted internally. His head felt as though two llamas were taking turns mounting each other inside his skull. His usual mastery over the lyrical had become a hodgepodge of stir-fried syllables. He could undoubtedly fire off a few more mud-grass horse insults, but those were the lowest common denominator. Looking at Fat Sammy there, his rival could probably K.O. him just by sitting on his chest.
“Peaches, what’s plan, man?” Mack-Daddy was balls out and perspiring profusely. “Is Miss Kutznetsova and Gwen going to come? If not…”
“You gotta have faith man!” Little-Dog insisted. “I believe in Peaches, who believes in Miss Song!”
Tao felt unsteady, his knees weak and wobbly, wondering if he should vomit forth his mum's chashui-mien already.
Come on, Mina! His eyes scanned the lift.
It was moving. MAO's BALLS it was opening!
The door opened.
Tao's voice caught in his throat.
... the concierge in a red vest.
FUCK! Tao groaned. Fuck that bitch!
Then the bastard stepped aside.
* * *
The nighttime drive through the Second Orbital at 7:40 PM was smooth enough that Gwen could brush out Lulan’s hair and affix a few brushed shadows as well as definition to her wine-coloured eyes. Thanks to the Regeneration spell's repair of Lulan’s previously Crawler-consumed dermis, her complexion was near flawless.
“You look wonderful, Lulu.” Gwen finished her handiwork and presented Lulan to Petra, who sat at the passenger side.
“Lovely,” Petra replied. After a short pause, she added. “Don’t let Richard see her like that.”
The car lurched a little. Mina glanced back through the rear view mirror.
Lulan was reborn.
The girl was a pretty thing previously, but even the best gems needed polishing and cutting to bring out their lustre and shine. Lulan studied her reflection in the mirror, a whole new world opening up before her, one that would drive Kusu up the wall shortly.
By now, Lulan had struggled into a dress Gwen had lent her - a simple sundress that suited her clean-cut, athletic figure well. Like all high-affinity Earthen Mages, Lulan possessed a hard and lean musculature. It was hard to believe that a girl with such a delicate face could have abdominals hard enough to shatter stone slabs on.
The Audi pulled up in front of the parking bay of the Waldorf Astoria Shanghai.
Several bell-boys immediately approached the car, headed by a well-dressed concierge.
“Miss Wang!” the concierge greeted Mina with a bow as she escaped the driver's seat impatiently. “What may be your pleasure today?”
“Stow the car,” Mina commanded the handsome young man dressed impeccably in his vermillion vest. “Take my guests down to Basement 2.”
“Where Young Master Wang is hosting his friends? Of course, Ma’am, right this way.”
Lulan stumbled from the back seat, helped by Gwen and aided by a bell-boy, struggling to balance on her wedges.
When Gwen herself straightened her dress, the wait-staffs’ eyes lit up.
Then Petra emerged, one shapely leg after another, and a respectful silence descended upon the parking lobby.
“Come on!” Mina urged them, watching the minute hand ticking toward its inevitable destination. "I've half a mind to have the two of you Dimension Door down there!"
The girls made their way across the lobby, guided by the fleet steps of the concierge and drawing eyes from across the room. The grand foyer of the Waldorf Astoria was four storeys tall and lit by Daylight spells playing beautifully through a panoramic array of French-window skylights. At the elevation platform bay, Greco-Roman statues in white marble added a touch of the classics to the otherwise Art-deco facade.
The 'lift' was a brass and glass contraption which moved without sound. A relic of bygone days when master craftsmen built the elevation platforms, and not prefabricated spell-glyphs installed by technicians.
"Level B-2," the concierge told the operator, who bowed, then returned to the stoic labour of cranking archaic ivory-handled shafts.
The party could hear the thumping of bone-throbbing bass before the lift even arrived. When the brass-wrought retro doors finally opened, the girls found themselves in the midst of a haze of smoke.
“YOU’RE HERE!” Tao’s voice could be heard projecting across the room via an empowered Ventriloquism. By his tone, Mina's brother sounded as though he had finally found Godot. “FUCK YEAH BITCHES! MAH HONEYS HAVE ARRIVED!! PEACHES IN DA HOUSE! HE AIN'T NO LIAR! BRINGING IT DOWN! SUCK IT SAMMY G! SUCK IT!!!”
The thumping bass reached a new high as a path opened between the stage and the girls. Gwen’s eyes scanned through the crowd, noting the absence of speaker systems. As before, their entire 'show' was a product of Tao and his gang utilising Illusionary magic.
'BOOM - Chic - BOOM- Chic...'
Once her curiosity in spellcraft was satiated, she craned her neck to inspect Tao's audience. As her hazel eyes took in the scene in front of her though, Gwen's lips fell half open with growing dread.
Beside Gwen, Lulan’s eyes were blazing with anticipation. The music! The thumping! The beat! What an atmosphere! Her blood was boiling! Just look at all the guys here dressed for battle. Some of them had visors, others wore hats that hid their faces in darkness. There were apparently two groups here as well, one side was predominantly red, while Gwen's cousin's side was in white and black. There was in addition, a hostile, thuggish atmosphere that made her suspect a melee was about to break out any moment! The strange thing though, was that there were just as many Mages as there were NoMs. If she were to perform a Sweep, how would the NoMs defend themselves?
'BOOM-BOOM - Chic - BOOM-BOOM- Chic...'
“Mina…” Gwen reached out and shook her cousin by the shoulders. “It’s a sausage party, Mina! You hear me?! A sausage party! What have you taken us to!”
Gwen's quivering voice had to be choked out between gritted teeth. So many MEN. WHERE ARE THE WOMEN? DIDN'T TAO HAVE A FAN CLUB?
Mina’s watering eyes struggled against the smoke, which unfortunately was as much atmospheric Illusion as it was second-hand cigarette smoke, with a tasteful hint of 'Chinese herbal medicine'.
“Peaches…” Mina felt such betrayal that her dainty healer's face had become twisted with malice. “I am going to kill you.”
* * *
The room grew quiet, beginning with the peanut gallery closest to the levitation platform. One by one their voices choked as the foursome of girls emerged.
First, a lovey but flabbergasted girl exited the lift with a stupefied expression. Then a short Asian girl with adorability dialled to ten, which many of the crowd recognised as Tao's famous sister.
Then the observers' heads went white with noise.
Slowly, the crowd parted like the Red Sea before a proverbial Magi.
Tao’s boastful voice reverberated through the basement, adding to the ambient noise. Sammy Gu’s face dropped, looking as though he had eaten a family-sized serving of bad sushi.
Petra Kuznetsova moved through the open lane like an empress surveying her domain, stepping over paper cups and smoking butt-ends. Those from Fudan who knew her reverently muttered her name, informing the others. Those whose knowledge had been lacking, now branded those syllables upon their brain.
Gwen took Lulan by her hand and moved up the aisle. She had wanted a more flashy entry, but Petra had forbidden all magic. The Sword Mage gazed reverently at the smiling sorceress just in front of her and followed without question.
Petra stopped at the stage's edge.
The spotlight moved from the stage centre and landed where she stood, bathing her in white illumination.
The sound of breath being drawn echoed across the room.
With a hand, she motioned for the vox-phone.
Obediently, the adjudicator M.C handed her the Ventrilo-device.
“We’re here,” she stated flatly, her voice ringing across the basement. “Now battle. It’s getting late.”
Gwen, Lulan, and Mina joined her side.
“You can do it, Peaches! We support you!” Gwen made her best impression of a fangirl. Her voice echoed across the basement, punctuated only by the thumping of bass generated by modifying Illusory Sound incantations. "Come on Lulu, you do it too."
“Why is his name a fruit?” Lulan's face was aflame with shame and unspeakable embarrassment. “Is he going to battle now? Is this a part of a ritual? Dark Ritual? Is someone being sacrificed?”
“WOooo!” Gwen's reply was alone and forlorn. "We love you, Peaches! Come on, Pats!"
Lulan felt full of scepticism for her 'support' of this snivelling worm-like Illusionist. In her eyes, the strangely dressed young man on the stage with the barely perceptible mana-signature could hardly even be considered an acolyte. In Huashan, such individuals could only assume the role of menial labourers. Sometimes, if their lack proved great enough, they were put to death or sterilised, or exiled if they were the children of notable members.
“Go on.” Petra clapped. “Get on with it. We’re here to support you.”
Tao turned to Sammy, his rival. His face flushed with excitement.
“Time to get it ON! BITCH!”
Tao launched into a bombastic beat-box rhythm to set the tempo of his Project Image. His lips unleashed a torrent of cognitively dissociative bitten syllables clashing with deliberately mispronounced homophones. Mack-Daddy and Little-Dog soon joined in, dimming the lights and providing vocal backing.
"When the Firestorm clears, it won't be
So fuck'n difficult to hear, 'til then hopefully ya
Little gobos get over your fears and neuroses
It's OK to be scared, bitch. The Magister said I'd trigger ears
My Illusions, ya see, they bring tears, my whole career's
A stroke of tactical genius, Illusory magic, pimp-ass sorcery, year after year..."
Tao was good, Gwen had to admit.
The Illusionist was actually riling the crowd up, getting them distracted from Petra long enough to once again start bobbing their heads and moving. That in itself was an impressive feat.
Maybe, if she could recall some of the classics from her old world, she could give Tao a push in the right direction. If Tao could master higher-tier Illusions or parallel casting, he could combine his 'show' with visual as well as audio spectacles, like Light Balancing, or clones of himself breakdancing.
Being the victim of Tao's verbose spit-spray, Sammy’s jowls quivered.
Try as Sammy might to recall rhymes to beat back the Peach, his thoughts were a mosquito swarm of libido and half-formed innuendo. Each time he tried to fathom a connecting rhyme, he instead saw the infamous sorceress' white stalks moving beneath the laced hem of her skirt. When Sammy attempted to shift his eyes away, his ocular muscles revolted, telling him to go fuck himself. Even as he pinched his legs black and blue, all he could think of was her white thighs, rising to the tapered arch of her waist and hips, punctuated by a pair of bottomless hazel orbs sinking from emerald to black.
It would be awesome, Sammy thought dreamily, if she could berate him or maybe step on his belly or something like that. Mao... to think he ate a four-course meal only two hours ago.
* * *
“I AM TERRIBLY SORRY!” Tao apologised beside the girls.
“Don’t be, it was fun.” Gwen laughed with genuine affection. “It was interesting to see you beat down that Sammy guy.”
"Still, I had no idea that dawg was such a pervert," Tao confessed miserably. "I mean, Sammy's wanton dude, but Mao, that was something else, even for him! Who'd thought he'd just unbuckle and flash Petra the goods..."
"Aha..." Gwen's expression was unreadable.
"..." Petra's was petrifying.
Following Tao’s one-sided thrashing of his stunned ‘rival’, Sammy lost it. Maybe the idea that Petra and Gwen were Tao's 'fans' was too much to take for the prideful 'gangster'. He released his 'wand' from its 'holster', then made a rush for the girls' side of the stage.
Petra immediately erected a crystalline wall that caught the large man mid-stride, catching his crotch, crushing the poor sod's mouse between a crystalline block and a hard place.
Though hastily resolved, the incident quickly turned into a riot of jeers and insults. Despite Gwen best efforts to dissuade Petra, her self-proclaimed bodyguard removed the girls from the scene.
Soon after, the party retired to the famous ‘Bar Astoria’.
“So, they battle with words only? Like a debate?” Lulan was still trying to wrap her head around the fact that several hundred individuals got together in a dark basement, set up a stage, squared off, then walked away after half an hour of shit-talking. “No spells? Could Even NoMs participate? Wasn't that man challenging us? I was going to use a Sword-Wall...”
The entire party winced. Tao crossed his legs.
“Something like that…” Mina was still furious that Sammy, a close family friend, turned out to be such a pervert. She promised the girls that everyone in her social circle would know and shun Sammy from this day forth.
Gwen told Mina to forget about Sammy and get the drinks started. As Mina ordered for the group, her eyes scanned the historical setting of Bar Astoria. During the day, the French windowed balcony doors were opened, offering a vista of the Huangpu River and the Bund. At night, the panes were shut, creating a cosy lounge. Beyond, the arc of the Bund's bay ran from left to right, paralleling the length of the white-quartz bar that stretched the entirety of the room.
“Young Miss, your drinks.”
A bright-eyed young man with the standard red vest of the hotel staff bowed stiffly, lowering himself as to allow the girls easier access to their drinks. When they each took their orders, there were two that remained, purple-orange creations with flecks of gold circling within.
“From the gentlemen by the window, Miss.” The waiter motioned subtly, drawing Petra’s eyes to the windowpane, where a suited young man seated with another male companion raised a glass.
“The second is for you, Miss,” the waiter spoke with a whisper. “From the other young Sir.”
Lulan’s eyes sparkled! She’d only ever seen this in drama Vid-casts!
“Please return both drinks to the gentlemen and thank them for the offer. We’re not socialising tonight.” Gwen smiled and placed a LDM on the tray as a tip for the waiter, intervening before Petra could dismiss their admirer with far less diplomacy. “Thank you.”
“Of course, Ma’am.” The young man's cheeks filled with colour.
“Those Dragonfruit Daiquiris are 4 HDMs per serve, you know,” Mina hinted at the prospect Gwen had rejected out of hand.
Lulan took her Sunrise on the Bund and gingerly sipped the viscous liquid.
“Oh my!” Her eyes lit up. “Delicious! I've never had a drink like this before.”
Gwen observed the bright-eyed girl sipping away happily, but couldn’t quite put her concern into perspective.
“Where did you dig this one out from?” Mina couldn’t help but ask, distracting Gwen from her thoughts. Large Storage Ring aside, Lulan was worse than Gwen when she first arrived in Shanghai. It was as though the girl had never been to a five-star historic hotel with a world famous bar before.
“There’s a pretty good story there, you guys want to hear? Peaches?” Gwen was now ready to deliver the story she'd withheld during lunch. Once certain elements were filtered for family-friendly listening, the tale would provide at least an hour of rapport and laughter.
“I am all ears, maybe you can rap it out?” Tao pulled up a chair.
The wannabe hoodlum cut a strange figure in the bar. The girls were all delicate fabric and dazzling white flesh while Tao was attired in white sneakers, Adidas tracks and a shirt two sizes too large. The contrast especially, made his presence more jarring than usual.
“Well, gather around folks.” Gwen crossed over her legs and straightened her spine, sipping her glass of Saffron gin & kumquat tonic, infusing her tongue with the tartness. “It all began when Kusu, Lulan’s brother here, asked me for a duel…”
* * *
The waiter left the 4 HDM beverages by its despondent buyers.
The young patron examined himself against the French window. He wore an Italian suit tailored to fit. In his reflection, he resembled a magazine model.
Looking over at the far table, he couldn’t help but notice that the single young man with the troop of stunningly gorgeous girls wore Adidas trackies and looked as though he should be squatting somewhere, bumming a butt-end.
Did I dress wrongly? He wondered to himself. Am I doing the wrong sort of things to attract girls of that grade? Had the trend changed that quickly? The yellow-teethed Adidas man had a face that looked like two soft-boiled eggs socketed into a gaunt skull.
“Say.” He turned to his companion. “Did you say that they were having a ‘battle of words’ in basement 2?”
“Some American thing, yeah,” his companion replied. “Why?”
“Should we…” The young man’s eyes darted back and forth between his own reflection, the chav, and the girls. “Should we go and see what it’s all about?”
* * *
Lulan hugged Gwen’s arm against her chest as she snorted and shrieked with hysterical laughter.
“That’s FUNNY Gwen!”
Gwen was a little buzzed herself and had not noticed Lulan ‘trying out’ half a dozen mixed-spirits within the hour. The girl clearly had no idea what her limits were, which made an unfortunate cocktail when combined with the concoctions from the bar.
When she caught her balance, Lulan’s cheeks had taken on the hue of the Moschino cherry she had gleefully suckled between her flushed lips.
Beside the intoxicated Sword Mage, Petra’s ability to put away alcohol was as stoic as her stone-cold mien, packing away at least a dozen shots without so much as a shade of scarlet touching her cheeks. Unlike the others, the Mineral Mage had enough constitution to order Vodka by the shot.
“Like liquid mana,” Petra informed her. “You should try it.”
Gwen wasn’t sure if the Vodka in this world was the product of magical Druid-grown potatoes or what, but if Petra extolled its virtues, then she wouldn’t mind giving it a go.
"Here's to the Void."
Toasting the difficult days to come, she slammed down the shot.
The liquid was like a string of fire running down her throat.
“Woa… hugggn!” Gwen took a second to master herself. “Strong.”
Her abdomen filled with a flush of warmth.
“Not bad,” she noted, clinking the empty glass with Petra.
“I want to try!” Lulan eagerly offered herself as a tribute. As she reached for the shot glass, however, Lulan stumbled and had to brace herself against Gwen's hip.
“She drunk as a goose, dawg.” Tao chugged the rest of his beer, flaunting his iron liver and generous bladder. “Man, she’s tots wasted, Gwen.”
Then the disquiet which she'd felt earlier came to Gwen.
HOLY SHIT, she realised. Lulan’s sixteen!
Thanks to Lulan's capacity for ultra-violence, Gwen had not once thought of the fact that Lulu was for all intents and purposes, a high school student.
Gods! They took a kid to a bar and allowed her unlimited access to the sauce bottles?
“I think we better go…” Gwen sobered up at once. She propped up Lulan’s flaccid, limping body with one arm. “Someone get me a spare bag as well. If I know my alcohol…”
Despite the apparent risks, Mina still offered to drive them home. Tao left to rejoin his friends, no doubt boasting that he 'told them so'.
Gwen’s foresight proved fortuitous.
“Bleeeeaarrgh! Oh… oh… I am dying… Gwen… Errrgh…. Bleurgh! Tell Kusu… tell…”
All four windows were drawn downward, and an odour-filtering magical trinket was placed in the middle of the car. Even so, the volatile mix of fruit juice, alcohol, stomach acid and whatever Lulan had for dinner was plain for all to experience.
Real friends let their acquittances vomit in their Audi’s, Gwen heeded Mina’s generosity. From her vantage point, she could see Mina wincing every time Lulan purged another Secret Peach & Tonic.
When they stumbled up to the sky garden, Kusu was waiting for them.
“Oh, Mao!” Kusu had never seen Lulan this vulnerable his entire life. “Is she poisoned?! Did someone envenom your food? Are you all alright?”
“She’s had a little too much to drink…” Mina apologised.
Gwen figured she had better not let Lulan stay with Kusu. The sheltered Clanner had clearly never dealt with drunk teens before. If Lulan was left to her own devices, she could pull a Bon Scott of ACDC fame.
Kusu nodded eagerly, his head bobbing like a nodding chook. He very much preferred not to be the one who had to strip Lulan and wipe down her vomit. If they were back in the Clan, a servant could have done it for him, though that would be after an Elder thrashed Lulan sober with a scabbard.
The girls thus brought Lulan back to Gwen’s apartment, with Mina bidding them goodbye after ensuring the Sword Mage didn’t need medical attention. Petra asked Mina to leave a few minor healing spells with her, then bid Mina goodbye. It wasn't until after Gwen and Petra dragged Lulan into the bathroom for another hour of purging that she resumed control of her faculties.
“S-sorry…” Lulan had lost her voice as well.
Having had some experience with the matter, Gwen rinsed the tub, ran a cleaning cantrip, then left the soiled dress to soak.
When Lulan reappeared before Kusu, she was pale and unsteady, but lucid. Petra had popped a Healing Word from Mina to smooth out any physical ailments but held onto her Lesser Restoration. There was no point wasting the reagents on something that could be reasonably slept off.
“Drink lots of water and sleep it off,” Gwen advised them. “How did the housing situation go?”
“No good,” Kusu admitted despondently. “We’ll keep looking from Monday.”
Gwen nodded and told them not to worry, then reinforced that Lulan should be kept under strict supervision and be given plenty of fluids.
Returning to her apartment, she found Petra running the filtration trinket in the bathroom again. The girl could be an incredible hypochondriac sometimes.
“Mayuree’s maid is coming over tomorrow noon,” Gwen informed her cousin. “I’ll be away at babulya’s at the PLA hospital. Wanna come along? We can have lunch after.”
“Sound’s like a plan.” Petra crossed her legs and regarded her cousin, who stood by the door. “How are you feeling, by the way?”
“Much better.” Gwen smiled weakly. “It was good to do something so…”
“Hahaha, that’s it exactly. I needed that.”
“You’re the type to want to feel grounded, huh?”
“It helps.” Gwen chuckled. “Magisters. Magic. Mages. Magi. Up, up and away. There’s not enough air up there. It’s suffocating.”
“But there’s much more space up there too. The sky’s the limit.”
“I know…” Gwen tried to think of something else to say, but nothing came to mind. She too, needed to sleep off the buzz. It had been a good night. As for tomorrow... tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow...
Tomorrow will be a long day.