A moment of contemplative silence lingered between uncle and niece.
Gwen could imagine Jun having two expressions: one where he pinched the bridge of his nose then looked up at the ceiling; another where he grinned confidently, unfazed, then stood to action.
The first impression, Gwen had to admit, was something more readily attributed to her father; Jun was the very opposite of Morye-Hai Song.
“Where are you now?”
“I am at the apartment.”
“Are you free to meet up? I am still processing Choi’s case. If what you say is true, there’s going to be a lot of trouble for Secretariat Choi, and another round of CCs for our little spook.”
“It’s entirely accidental.” Gwen chuckled at her new moniker as a femme fatale. “I can come out now. I’ll let Petra know.”
“Maybe she should escort you?”
“That’s going to be awkward,” Gwen confessed. “I hid the slates from her Master earlier.”
“Petra's a good girl. She wouldn’t have minded, I am sure.”
“I was more afraid there would be sensitive material in there. I trust Petra, but we have an understanding. I don't want her to act against her Master's interests, not when we can avoid the issue altogether.”
“Well! As a loyal member of the PLA, I must have misheard just now. Where do you want to meet?”
“Do you know a cafe called Caffebene? It’s on Handan Rd.”
“I don’t, but I’ll find it. Is 2040 alright? I'll be leaving from Dachang Airbase. Signing out is going to take some time.”
“Sure, I am just three blocks over.”
“See you soon.”
“See you, Uncle Jun.”
Thirty-odd minutes later, Gwen opened her bedroom door. The Shanghai summer was coming on sticky and muggy, with the monsoonal air so humid as to cling to one’s skin like a film. Not wanting to draw attention to herself, Gwen picked out a pair of safari shorts and an ink-dyed camisole, pairing it with calfskin booties. Seeing that it was late, she added on a windbreaker as well, its hood hiding her thick ponytail.
“I am heading out for a sec.” she knocked on Petra’s door. “Seeing Uncle Jun for a bit, he wanted to have a pep talk. I'll Message you if anything happens.”
When Petra donned her robe and emerged, the apartment door had clicked-shut; her cousin was gone.
* * *
Caffebene was a little out of the way coffee shop that transformed at night into a dessert bar selling an assortment of cakes. The owner was a NoM young man in his late twenties who liked to follow the latest trends, fancying himself a bit of a fashionista.
He hadn’t intended to open the shop for almost sixteen hours a day, but Fudan was a high-rent area with a lively nightlife. Its citizens enjoyed mid-night strolls and Xiao-Ye, or nighttime snacks, often staying up as late as 3 AM, playing cards, making small talk, and trading gossip.
Currently, his eyes were scanning the horoscope section of the local paper.
According to the columnist, they were written by sanctioned Diviners.
‘There may be a great deal of fuss over something that you have thought about before. Snake, try to see the beauty of everything around you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Make sure you give enough credit to yourself. Good things await those who are willing to try.’
The owner looked about his shop. Empty.
What should he try exactly?
Caffebene did not have the best decor, though it was cute and clean. It did not sell the best coffee, though they were marginally cheaper. The chocolate-coffee cake his wife baked though, was divine.
Should he make the shop into a 'coffee' confectionary instead? What if the astral-signs are different tomorrow?
Just as he began to doubt the contents of his horoscope, a figure pushed past the doorway, setting the bell to jingle. When he looked up, he recognised the familiar figure immediately.
Petra Kuznetsova’s cousin! Guan something!
There was no-one else around Fudan with a more recognisable silhouette! He had seen her jogging around Campus every morning for the last six weeks. Every time she passed with her Mongolian Death Worm, it set the customer’s tongues wagging.
Mao! The girl was stunning even in casual wear. The owner had to remind himself that he was a happily married, non-magically inclined husband with a wife who could bake like an Enchanter.
“Please sit anywhere you like, Miss,” the owner’s voice choked out, an octave higher than he had intended. She was an actual celebrity! The word on the street was that she was a one-in-a-million Conjurer. Maybe she could bring business with her. Guan-something's favourite cake!
When the Mongolian Deathworm followed her in, a ferret riding atop its head, the owner paled.
The girl, however, nodded sweetly, her face pallid in the ambient light, her eyes seeking out a discrete corner. The owner couldn't help but stare at the girl as she crossed her legs, her white stalks almost touching the opposite table leg.
A strange sensation seemed to engender itself in his chest, a daring thought that he would have never entertained were they not alone in his shop. The visage of his wife dimmed. What was she doing out so late and alone anyhow?
The Mongolian Deathworm raised its head curiously.
The door opened again, shaking the owner from his thoughts.
What was that? His head cleared, the sensation falling away. He could breathe again. He issued an apology to his spouse, then looked up to greet the new customer.
“Gwen!” the man called out, raising a hand.
“Uncle!” the girl roused from her chair.
“Just us in here, huh?” The new patron turned his attention toward the owner.
This ‘Uncle’ of the girl was a military man. He had the bearing of one used to command. A PLA officer? The owner pondered. He knew that grunts were forbidden from leaving the barracks after curfew. Only select officers had that sort of leeway. The man wore blue-white military cargo pants that ended in a pair of dark leather boots laced far too neatly, with a tight, long sleeve shirt that moulded around his broad pectorals and tapered waist.
The man moved with cat-like grace.
The 'Uncle' threw something toward the owner.
The owner caught it, then opened his hand.
Even as a NoM, he recognised the sliver of crystal. From the feel and weight of it, it was worth three to four HDMs at least. Magic-currency wasn’t uncommon in the districts around Fudan.
“Do you mind locking up for the night? We need privacy,” the military man enquired; his sonorous voice one of command. “That’s yours if you do. We can go elsewhere as well. Not to worry.”
Who was this guy kidding! On a quiet night like this, the owner knew that he was lucky to make half of what he’d been given. He sold coffee and cakes, for Mao's sake, not banquets.
“Sure thing, boss!” The owner quickly approached the door and locked up, switching the sign from 'Open' to 'Closed'. “I’ll be upstairs, doing accounts and preparing for tomorrow. Let me know if you need anything else.”
“Gwen? Do you want anything? I'll take water."
“Can I have the 10-inch Choco-mouse cake?”
The owner reached into the cabinet and was about to cut a slice when the Girl spoke again.
“The whole cake…”
The girl blushed, adding a hint of colour to her bloodless cheeks.
“Of course, Miss.” The owner averted his eyes. With his head freed from that shameful compulsion, he dared not losing himself again in her hazel orbs. Fudan was full of Mages. The owner was well aware that certain Mages exerted a palpable aura of some sort. As for the girl herself, now that he had divorced himself from her allure, she was beginning to make his skin crawl. “Right away, I’ll bring water. Please help yourself to anything you like in the cold-cabinet. No charge.”
Plates, serving dishes, and a 10-inch one-pound chocolate cake was bought out.
Jun made a face when the cake that was presented to them was placed with an audible thud on the table. Not many things frightened him, but the liberty by which icing on the cake was applied made his heart skip a beat.
The owner returned with glasses, a jug of cold water, forks and spoons, serviettes and even a bib, then retreated to some farther room, leaving uncle and niece to themselves.
“First things first.” Gwen materialised the data slates and explained very briefly what was in Nephres’ ring. Furthermore reiterating her experiences in Sydney and the incident involving Edgar.
Jun took the slates and carefully read through them one by one.
“We know about the Powders,” Jun murmured as he browsed through the slate with Choi’s name written in black and white. “Interesting. The Secretariat himself was doing a little trading with the other leaders of the Districts.”
“Is that bad?” Gwen enquired. The Lost Districts were, after all, a semi-autonomous region.
“Oh, yes,” Jun replied. “There are no Divination Towers in or near the area, which means they must be running things via some external network. Contact between the various zones is one of the foremost things forbidden in the Lost Districts. It looks like Secretariat Choi and his colleagues are going to be vacationing at the Sky-Prison far longer than they had anticipated.”
“Why would he send the Slavers against us if Nephres had this much dirt on him?”
Jun shrugged, rolling his broad shoulders. He took a sip from the glass of water Gwen had poured out for him.
“You have to understand that when a man like Choi sits like a King on the throne of his little abode for too long, it twists his head. He begins to think that he can do no wrong, that his choices are impeccably wise and immaculately planned. I’ve seen it all too often, not just in the PLA but in places in the Frontier when a Clan-Head or an official has all the power. There's madness there that comes with having the power of life and death over so many.”
“Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Gwen chimed.
“Yes. Very good, Gwen.” Jun stabbed small corner of the cake and took a bite, then grimaced. “Too sweet.”
Gwen had held off out of politeness, but now that Jun had dug in, she was free to ravage the remaining 99.9% of the sugary treat.
“Choi is the blister and boil that inevitably appears when a beast as large as the CCP, with its PLA, holds so much power over every aspect of the citizens' lives. There’s an interesting Chinese saying which covers it well: the district bureaucrat is greedy for money, the regional bureaucrat is greedy for power, the state bureaucrat is greedy for stability, and the Emperor is greedy for immortality. I guess Choi never graduated past the first rug. As for where all the money goes, let's say the vine extends far up the trunk.”
Gwen nodded, her cheeks filling like a chipmunk's.
Jun watched his niece, humoured by Gwen's self-professed ease in his presence.
Jun looked through the third slate, the one with the student profiles.
“... this one has our student records on it. I think they leaked from Fudan.”
Jun paused at the profiles.
“Incomplete. How curious.”
“What do you think, Uncle Jun?”
Jun stowed away the slates in his Storage Ring.
"I've seen that profile image. I think mother took it when you first had your biometric-Spellcraft measurements done. The only people who would have access to that specific image is your Grandmother and the Fudan Administration office, though I suppose Dean Luo could have had a copy. It's not the image used on your Student I.D. It's the one on your original application.”
“How do you suppose Nephres Zalaam got a hold of it?”
"Do you want to know?"
"Do I..." Gwen read her uncle's eyes immediately. Sometimes, a little bliss was better than having too much knowledge. Curiosity killed the cat and all that. "I... do."
"Wen gave Choi the records. Not an unusual thing, mind you. Quite within the expected standard of things. What's interesting is why there are omittances."
"Of my other Schools?"
"Gwen, let me give you some advice. You need to learn to open your eyes beyond your immediate world. Your record was incomplete, sure, but it remains an impressive read. Void, Lightning, two Schools of Magic, how wonderous and powerful! If I were in the trafficking trade, you would be a prize beyond compare - absolutely worth the risks of the Tower's and the PLA's ire! What's missing then, is not YOUR record."
Gwen scanned her memory of the others' records. Other than Kitty's profile, both Mayuree and Richard's gave away nothing.
"The others! They're depicted as nobodies..."
"Nothing impressive or dangerous. Yes."
"Which means the records were altered to engender temptation for the traffickers!" The fog cleared. It all made sense!
"Always look at the whole circumstance. You must see beneath the beneath," Gwen's uncle advised. "You'll get the hang of it."
Gwen's face flushed. In the next second though, her blood ran cold.
"Is a woman with an agenda."
That much was evident by now.
The Magister had no idea who Nephres was, of course, nor her relationship to Elizabeth Sobel, nor to Edgar. Maybe the incident couldn't have been averted, perhaps it could. It was all muddled up now. What was important was that, as Jun stated, the Magister was not her friend. Her designs were her own; Gwen Song was less an individual and more so a beastie Wen had to fatten up with carrion.
"I see that you now know. To be honest with you, Choi told me already. I had a Mind-Mage scrape him, though it looks like we might have to go deeper now."
Gwen inclined her head solemnly, thinking of the brain-scraping sensation of having someone invade the most private sanctum of your mind. Unconsciously she cut out a generous portion of the cake with her fork and crammed it into her mouth melancholically.
“As for the slate with the code, we have someone who specialises in that sort of thing. I’ll submit it and see if I can get some more CCs on top of the ones I promised you back in D-109.”
That was one piece of good news, at least.
Gwen thanked her uncle. CCs helped; she needed to pick up another two to three spells across three different Schools of Magic.
“So Gwen,” Jun began again. “I spoke to grandmother before I came.”
“She told me about the decision you have reached.”
Gwen met her uncle’s dark eyes, within which the ambient light of the coffee shop refracted acrosss his cold, charcoal pupils.
“I have to know how to control… my appetite,” Gwen announced evasively.
“That may be.” Jun’s face came closer. Gwen could see his biceps balloon as he leaned in, elbows on the desk. “There’s a better way, Gwen.”
Gwen’s fork paused on its way to the chocolate cake.
“I think,” Jun said carefully. “Both you and mother have been pulled too deeply into Magister Wen’s world. That woman cares for nothing other than her data, her papers and her publications. She doesn’t see you as who you are, Gwen. She sees you as a sample, a precious sample, no doubt, but in the end, she doesn’t care about what’s in here…”
Jun's finger paused an inch centre-left of her bosom.
“She only cares about satiating her curiosity. That’s not in itself a bad thing, don’t get me wrong. She may not even be in it for fame or power - she’s the sort of woman who would do anything just so that she could have the answer. That’s what makes her so useful - but also dangerous.”
“I understand that you’ve made a choice, Gwen.” Jun’s face, so identical to her father’s, was making her queasy. The look of earnest devotion and care on Morye’s ever-playful and never serious face was screwing with her head. “Mark my words, there’s going to be far more ‘prisoners’ in store once she gets her initial data.”
“I told her we were going as far as our fact-finding mission would take us,” Gwen protested, feeling strangely defensive of her choice. It had taken her so much effort and will to make this decision, and now Jun as trying to dissuade her from it? If there was another option, another choice, then what was the point of her splatting blood all over her face to make that decision?
Jun caught the defiance in her eyes and put up a hand in protest.
“Whoa there, let me finish. Mao, you’re just like my mother in that regard, once you set your head around something…”
Gwen stabbed the cake a little more violently than she’d intended.
"This is what's so dangerous about Magister Wen. The woman is offering you extremes, delivered in logical and reasonable terms. There's no compromise. Tell me, Gwen, do you believe that consuming another 'being' would help your present condition?"
Gwen wanted to say yes.
"Do you believe that you cannot control your 'appetite'?"
She had no idea.
"Do you think consuming 'more' people would make it easier for your future endeavours? That you're going to fundamentally change the nature of an Element because of applied academia and repetition? That after the 10th victim, things are going to be 'different'?"
Gwen honestly had no answer to that. Perhaps Magister Wen did-
"Can you NOT be satiated with Magical Beasts? Do they not possess essence, vitality and mana? Since when did the Void specialise in cannibalism? You think the PLA will leave you alone after that?"
"I could... maybe..."
The impeccable logical scaffold constructed by Magister Wen floundered under Jun's assault.
"But knowledge is a necessity. Knowledge is control, especially as it may not be possible to avoid your condition," Jun continued. "I think there is a compromise here. I'll speak with mother, and we'll figure something out. You'll get your data, Gwen. A man will die. But Magister Wen will also know she can't just walk all over you."
Gwen felt a fuzzy feeling in her chest. It was nice to know that her uncle cared. That was something she had most definitely not experienced in her old world; not even a liberal dose of Cipralex could dispell her anxiety so readily.
“In addition to that, here’s what I am proposing,” Jun folded his arms. “After your End of Semester exams, you and I are going on a little trip.”
“A trip? Where to?”
“An undisclosed region outside of the capital city, a little way from Anhui, a Purple-zone.”
“Have you heard of the Huangshan Mountains before?”
The ‘Yellow Mountain’ was one of the five great mountain ranges of China, famed for its cloud-covered precipices jutting out from the cloud bank into the heavens. Combined with its unusually high tree-line, the mountain served as the visual inspiration for caligraphic silkscreen-paintings.
She replied that she did.
“Good, then you should know that there is a Yinglong who roams those ranges.”
“I didn’t know that,” she confessed, then added embarrassingly. “What's a Yinglong?”
“In the Analects of the Mountain and the Seas, Gou-Pu described the Yinglong as a creature of up to seven Li long. It is one of the very first dragons, most famous for his service to the Yellow Emperor, aiding him in the Battle of Zhuolu when he fought against the tyrannical Spirit King Chiyou. Named the ‘Great Responding Dragon’ Yinglong would create a great storm to flush out the Emperor's enemies. When the wind and rain deities, Feng Bo and Yu Shi, were causing problems, the Yellow Emperor summoned his daughter, the Drought Goddess Ba to silence them, allowing the Yinglong to unleash a tempest. The battle ended with the capture of Chiyou, who was then eaten by Yinglong.”
“That sounds awfully mystical.” Gwen couldn’t help but feel her uncle wasn't very realistic. Then again, she reminded herself that Amuldj was accurately ‘several Li’ long. “Or maybe not, what are we going to do there?”
“Not be eaten by the Yinglong, hopefully,” Jun laughed. “I am going to give you some training, and you’re going to discover a detour away from your current conundrum.”
“Well, dragons are very much wanton creatures of lust, see, and when they inhabit a mountain region…”
“They have sex with everything!” Gwen blurted out, having heard it before from her Bestiary trainer, Hufei.
Now it was Jun’s turn to look flustered.
“Well, yes, very good,” he coughed. “We’re going to go to Huangshan and get you some dragon babies.”
“You’re expecting me to dance the er... horizontal tango with a Yinglong?” Gwen muttered, wondering where this was going. Could a human even become the concubine of a Yinglong? What a suggestion! Is she going to return to Shanghai bearing an egg of some sort? Gods! How does the physiology of that sort of thing even work? Is there a Polymorph involved? Her voice took on a keener edge. Not even Amuldj would- Ergh! Unthinkable!
“I don't think I am willing to go that far..."
Jun stared at his niece for several awkward seconds, then broke into a rip-roaring snort of laughter.
“No you silly goose!” Jun rapped Gwen across the forehead. “We’re going poaching!”
“Yes!” Jun snorted. “The dragon fucks everything that walks, swims, and flies, right? To use some Western Spellcraft terminology, the Yinglong is specifically a dragon of the air, water, and positive energy! I suppose in the Western Bestiary; it would be something akin to a blue-dragon.”
“Lightning-dragon spawns!” Gwen realised what Jun was suggesting.
“Indeed!” Jun chuckled. “You and I, we’re going to try and find you a Lightning Spirit! And collect Lightning Creature-Cores! There’s a whole mountain of spawns there, they’ve become a plague!”
“Is it safe to hunt them?”
“Of course not!” Jun laughed. “Very dangerous in fact, but I’ll convince Mother one way or another. She’ll see the need for it. In my opinion, Lightning should be your primary-Element, let Void be supplementary. Some of the most powerful Magi in history were Lightning Battlemages, you know!”
“But, the chances of finding a Spirit…” Gwen wanted to say that they could be killing hundreds of draconic spawn and it wouldn’t be strange not to see a single Core, much less a Spirit. Not to mention a significant battle of some sort would surely attract the Yinglong.
“Oh ho ho.” Jun reached into his shirt and pulled out a familiar looking heirloom keepsake.
The second half of the Kirin Pendant!
“There’ll be no luck needed to find some Cores.” Jun grinned, showing the whites of his teeth. “All we need to do is survive.”
“I see." Gwen's voice shivered. "A third path."
Her father’s smiling face gazed back at Gwen, sending her bosoms aflutter with unspeakable emotions.
“Who says that the Void is be-all and end-all? Why not build yourself up to oppose this Elizabeth Sobel with the one thing that would counter her? Why not become, how do you say this? The Second Coming of Thor? The Nordic God of Lighting?”
"It's the Second Coming of Christ," Gwen couldn't stop herself from smiling.
When she finally caught her overexcited self, her chest was rising and falling with anticipation. She reached out with a hand and took Jun’s rough fingers in her palm.
“I’ll do it! Uncle Jun!” she proclaimed with bright eyes glowing with renewed faith for her Path ahead.
She violently stabbed the cake with her fork.
“For dragon babies!”