“You’re telling me you’ve done… nothing? Not a single quest completed?”
Gwen felt a wave of sympathy roll over her chest.
Lulan sat on Gwen's living room lounge, her knees held against her chest, her expression glassy and miserable. Lulu was impressively flexible, Gwen noticed, she could maybe find alternative employment as a contortionist.
Herself, Petra, Lulan, Kusu and Richard had been enjoying a celebratory dinner in Gwen's apartment before Monday’s Finals. As the Mages each took turns discussing recent events, Lulan confessed that she hadn’t been questing.
“What happened?” Gwen inquired, curious as to why someone with Lulan’s skills would be excluded at all.
“Eh, I joined a Purge party around Week 9, although…” Lulan explained.
As it turned out, the Clan organised Party had been instructed to isolate her. After entering the Jiangxi Orange Zone, her party members immediately snubbed the Sword Mage. Having brought only a week’s supply of rations, she ended up having to forage for food and water, as well as make her shelter. When she accused the Party Leader, the man further turned the rest of the party against her, citing her ‘violent’ past and her infamous reputation as a 'traitor'. No longer clouded by the red mist, Lulan was lost as to her next course of action, knowing that if she killed them or maimed them, she would probably never again return to Shanghai.
When she returned in week 11, she fell into such depression that she stayed in the apartment for about a week, sleeping.
“Those bastards! You should have come to us immediately!” Gwen gnashed her pearly teeth. Caliban stirred beside her, licking its chops. “Who are they? We'll pay them a visit.”
“I appreciate the sentiment,” Kusu intervened, ever the cool-headed one. “Lulu and I, we need to keep our heads down. Maybe it's best to get pushed around for a while. This way, they can ‘forget' about us. We're just going to be glaring targets otherwise.”
“Huashan has a stick up their arse.” Gwen’s complaint was low and grumbling. "Should I talk to Uncle?"
“It’s not our Clan.” Lulan shook her head. “It’s everyone else.”
Clanners then. Clanners in general.
“Maybe I should drop a year? Take six months of leave?” Lulan wondered aloud, watching Gwen’s face. “I could be in the same year as you and Kusu then.”
That’s more like dropping TWO years, Gwen explained to her. That’s too much time wasted for what was essentially a problem resolvable with a little tenacity and a lesson delivered via an Iron Sword.
Gwen was almost considering whether she could speak to Dai for that favour when her cousin chimed in his two cents.
“Look.” Richard came to Lulan’s rescue. “Why don't you join my party? We’re all second years. My guys are all independent contractors so don’t expect anyone fancy, but we got no baggage either.”
“You have a regular Party?” Gwen felt a little envious that Richard already had his own ‘crew’. She knew he had a few people who regularly sought him out, but a party?
“You know, the Nantong guys from the Bridge project, plus a few strays we’ve picked up since.”
“I don't know about that,” Gwen pouted. "You've never introduced them formally."
“They’re all eager to meet you, haha,” Richard chuckled, thinking of the time his boss spat the dummy, accusing him of keeping his 'beauty' of a cousin hidden. “I told them they’re dreaming.”
“Can I join then?” Lulan perked up. "They won't dislike a Clanner?"
“They wouldn't care. We’re mostly doing construction and clearing work though, don’t expect us to be doing much Purging. We're on the defensive nine times out of ten. You can transmute metal, right?”
“I conjure Iron, and yes. I can Transmute all kinds of metal, though iron is my forte.”
“Perfect.” Richard clapped his hands. “You have no idea how helpful that's going to be. It’s dirty work though, lots of water, sand and mud every day, every inch of the way. Lots of merfolk to fight as well. Think you'll be alright with that?”
Lulan nodded eagerly.
“Great!” Richard reached over with his hand. The two shook on the deal. “The boys will be thrilled.”
Kusu watched the exchange, his eyes increasingly uncertain.
“How many women are in your group?” Kusu asked casually.
“Yep, Lulu. Hahaha!” Richard broke into rancorous laughter, slapping Kusu’s thighs with casual intimacy.
“Hahaha!” Lulan laughed as well, giddy that she had joined a non-Clan Party. Richard was someone she could trust, he was Gwen's cousin, right? He had defeated her in D-109! The Water Mage was incredible, not to mention he had a humanoid Spirit!
Kusu’s temple throbbed.
A vision of Lulan in shorts and a spaghetti singlet, covered in construction dust, hammering away at bedrock, flashed between his eyes. There were men, so many men, their eyes green, glowing, and watching as her iron sword pounded away.
Thunk! Thunk! Thunk!
Then Lulu would wipe away a brow full of sweat.
Suddenly, Kusu felt violently ill.
* * *
The Conjuration practical exam involved a graded demonstration. There were duels galore, but not so for Gwen. One 'Shaaa!' from her Mongolian Death Worm was enough to dissuade anyone eager enough to consider contesting the Void sorceress. The Bestiary students had spread the word that should a Familiar be consumed by Caliban, 'It's gone forever!' As for those without Familiars, they were rarely on the Combat tract and therefore lacked the galls to challenge the girl who had disgraced Kusu and Lulan of the Huashan sect. Additionally, a rumour had circulated that Dai Fung owed Gwen Song a favour, that was a Warding Glyph no one wanted to step in.
Evocation came and went as Gwen had anticipated. Without access to her Familiars or the convenient IFF of a Spirit, she had initially scored in the low 80s. It took a manifestation of Ball Lightning, consecutively creating three self-seeking orbs which unerringly demolished their targets to attain High Distinction.
Though higher grades were not necessary for her inclusion in the IIUC team, Petra had informed her cousin that seldom did team members possess a Weighed Average Mark below 85. As for Gwen who wished to participate in the 2004 October tryouts, her grades as well as her skills needed to be in the top percentile.
CCs well spent, Gwen thought as she circulated her mana, filling the air with ozone. Her instructor had given her excellent advice.
Tuesday followed with Bestiary, a course Gwen had already passed with flying colours. She went anyway, giving Eunae and the others moral support as Luyi ducked and dodged through obstacles and fought summoned creatures.
Advanced Spellshaping was next.
The 60% weighing project for Magister Lee’s course was the alteration of a ‘spell’ which the students must present for a glorified show and tell. Gwen hadn’t thought much of the project as the assignment involved ‘an original alteration of an existing spell’. Thus far, her peers proved woefully unoriginal.
It was fortunate that Gwen had several.
Flashbang was almost entirely ‘original’, though nine-tenths of it had been Alesia’s design.
She also had a spell she had named Taser. In hindsight, it was utterly useless against monsters because meleeing a land-shark was foolish. It was also useless against Mages because casters possessed Shields. What was it good for? NoMs.
Gwen cringed. Those days of playful innocence were behind her. To think she had thought NoMs a force to be feared.
Then there was Blast Bolt, which was another spell Alesia and Henry had advised. Finally, she had the Elemental-Shift variety of Faithful Hound and the Blast-Radius variety of Dimension Door.
Now that she thought of it, she hadn’t ‘messed’ with any new spells for a long time. Was it because of time and resource? Or that it was easier to buy than discover? In truth, her human resources in Sydney had been over the top. She had unilateral access to the battle-prodigy Alesia de Botton, her brother-in-craft Gunther Shultz, and the late Master of Oceania, Henry Kilroy. For most of her early career, she had been tutored via a Cog-Chamber, with her mana guided and her incantations perfected by Tower-tier teachers.
Talk about a silver teaspoon, Gwen reflected with a bittersweet melancholy. In hindsight, she had been fed with a platinum escargot fork.
Michio appeared interested in her Flashbang but snorted at her other spells.
“75, Distinction,” the man noted, flexing his chest unconsciously. “I am frankly disappointed. I’d expected more.”
Well, shit. Gwen gave the Magister her best smile to hide her flustered nerves. Averaged against her previous assignment, she was sitting on 82. She had figured that since Michio was such a peacock, the man was likely going to give her an easy HD if she dressed up for the occasion.
From his hypercritical dismissal of her never-before-seen spells, Michio was either a consummate professional unmoved by miniskirts, or, as Elle Woods had remarked in Legally Blonde, 'was he gay, or Singaporean?'.
“This might take a while. Magister Lee, please observe.”
Gwen drew a low-tier summon circle on the floor with her finger, then began to incant her sole warding spell.
“Morden’s Faithful Hound!” It took her just over a minute to finish the spell, a personal record.
A blazing silhouette constructed of cobalt electricity erupted from the circle, then disappeared for all but Gwen. Only the owner of the guardian-hound could see its presence within the AOE perimetre. Those who were not designated by Gwen during the spell's incantation saw only a dim circle of glowing light on the floor, easily hidden by debris and dust.
“HOW!” Magister Lee stood from his chair with enough force to send the fold-out chair clattering across the training hall.
Michio strode across the floor toward Gwen, who frantically began to dispel the hound. Her inexpertise, however, was time enough for the Magister to approach with the specific intent of ‘testing’ her ward.
A blaze of Tyrian-cobalt fulmination erupted, then an enormous Great Dane leapt from the summoning circle. Michio’s mana-shield sparkled and sizzled as a pattern of red-orange light erupted, keeping Gwen's tier 4 guard dog at bay, scraping and snarling at her intruder.
“Dismiss!” Gwen finally managed to dispel the hound. It was the first time she had to undo her incantation.
Michio’s Shield glowed for a second longer, then dissolved, leaving a scent of sunkissed bedsheets.
A Radiant Mage, no wonder! Gwen thought immediately of Gunther. No wonder the two men resembled each other. The overbearing presence, the aura of authority, the endearment they engendered effortlessly.
“WONDERFUL!” Michio reached out with his massive hands, catching her shoulders and pinning her at arm's length. “I AM VERY PLEASED! GWEN SONG.”
“THANK YOU!” Gwen hollered back, her mind awash with his awesome presence. Gods, why were they both shouting? “Can you let me go, Sir? I have no wish to lose a kidney to one of your fangirls.”
Michio released her.
Gwen shot a suspicious glance at the dozen or so students throwing daggers with their eyes. She stepped back a safe distance from the Magister in case he once again became enraptured by The Passion of Spellcraft.
The Magister was literally glowing as he stepped back, his Radiant Aura brightening the room.
For a second, even Gwen felt an affection that was difficult to place. It was the feeling one got when seeing the sun rise behind Uluru, watching sunbeams cascade over the dark land.
If she had been a teenager, she might have fallen in love with Lee right there and then. The man evidently had far less control over his aura than Gunther, for her brother-in-law never ‘leaked’ his charismatic Colour Spray all over innocent bystanders.
“Who taught you this variation?”
“My instructor,” Gwen answered vaguely.
Michio studied Gwen's eyes with an intensity unbefitting an instructor. As the Radiant mana circulated through Lee's mana channels, his dark pupils flared like beads of superheated charcoal.
“Are you willing to offer the variation to the Tower for CCs? If you are in the rightful possession of these spells, you will be amply rewarded. You will contribute to the greater good of the Spellcraft community! What say you, Gwen Song?”
Gwen did a double take. Sell the spell? Offer it to the public? Could she do that? The variation belonged to her Master, did it not? But of course, her Master was cold and preserved in Sufina's Grot. Not to mention his estate belonged to Gunther and Alesia more so than herself.
“I would have to consult with the er… other stakeholders,” Gwen replied expertly. “I will endeavour to give you an answer as soon as I am able.”
“You MUST!” Michio came closer, his aura making her eyes water. “If you do, you shall receive a perfect grading!”
Gwen’s complexion glowered a vibrant shade of scarlet, looking as though she had been facing a furnace.
There was that smell of freshly sunned bedsheets again!
“I need to go.” Gwen pulled herself away. Jesus Christ, she tried to imagine Gunther pulling one of these orgiastic light shows of personal charisma. People would likely fall to their knees and kiss his shoes even if he had stabbed their mothers.
With her booties clacking against the wooden floorboards, Gwen fled the scene.
* * *
Gwen drifted through the air, following their instructor’s lead. Lesser Flight was the last station for Utility Transmutation. Magus Luo, the Dean’s nephew, led the group of about twenty or so Utility Transmutation students who had mastered enough of their secondary School to take to the air.
Gwen followed without apparent effort, though she received no praise from her Instructor.
Luo had found out from the Dean that Gwen was a natural Transmuter, meaning her ‘genius’ for her ‘third’ school was the equivalent of a native speaker masquerading as a foreigner learning the language.
When the flight finished, fourteen students remained.
Kanto gave Gwen a 95 out of 100, grudgingly marking it down on his data slate before bidding her leave to enjoy her Winter Holiday. Though it was almost hitting 30 to 35 degrees Celsius daily in mid-August, the University's Extra-curriculum circuit meant students would remain busy in Shanghai well into November, all the way until day-time temperatures dropped to sub-zero.
As for Gwen, freedom was at hand.
Economics on Thursday was a cinch. Searching through the three dozens of economic models seared into her memory by week-long cram sessions, she re-imagined a watered down revision of the Keynesian Economic model by the late John Maynard Keynes. To the erstwhile consultant, the mass unemployment and high demand for consumption of the NoMs reminded her explicitly of the Great Depression suffered by the U.S during the 1930s.
She appropriated a few ‘golden rules’ offered by Keynes as a solution to the Great Depression, mainly that there was a way to stimulate the economy via an ‘incentive to invest’, substituting the Arcane Class for the Capitalist Class, and the NoMs for the Working Class. She advocated for the opening of the Shanghai Central Bank to low-interest Loans for NoMs seeking to erect small and medium enterprises, with the CCP serving as gatekeepers of monetary policy.
Her essay furthermore explained that should interest rates for lending be reduced, many investments previously not seen as viable or profitable would able to manifest. Loans would serve as financing for long-term debt-purchases such as houses, automobiles, and the spread of magical appliances. In this manner, the stimulation of the NoM economy directly fed into the circulation of currency and assets in the Mage economy, drawing the two together to create an overall apportionment of goods and services across the two previously segregated spheres of economic development.
As for the potential rise of buccaneer enterprises and Fordian moguls, Gwen wasn’t worried. She wrote that Crystals were naturally resistant against hyperinflation and that the Towers would punish anyone whose greed threatened to undermine the system. For corruption at higher levels, she could only hope someone watched the watchers. In Gwen's eyes, economics in this world were small-scale, city to city. There would be no catalytic and systematic failure even in the worst scenario. Assuredly, with the NoMs already living like Steinbeck’s Middle-America in a literary cross-over with Orwell's Air Strip One, things could hardly get worse.
Management was another easy write-up. As this world sorely lacked in political science in favour of outright violence and total war, Gwen decided to address Ma’s question of “Problems of Equality in a Society of Strata” with stolen transcripts from Amartya Sen, the Harvard resident on Human Development Theory. In the 80s, the professor had posed a formative question regarding the emergence of Neo-liberalism, citing the problem of distributing limited resources ‘equally’. Gwen contributed one of her old essays, proposing the question of ‘Equality of What?’ moving through topics such as welfare, resource, capability and opportunity. Following Sen’s theory, she linked these with key humanistic themes of individuality and responsibility, then worked in an entire section on the concept of Noblesse Oblige, arguing for a more balanced approach to the social strata, emphasising a convergence of liberal and socialist receptions to ‘equality’ among the classes that linked in with her earlier economic essay.
After the last call for ‘pens down’ was met by the clattering of writing implements; Gwen gathered Kitty, Richard and Mayuree around her, then paraded her compatriots toward the local Korean BBQ, where she ‘shouted’ them dinner.
* * *
"Sure, put it into the registry, I don't mind." Gunther shrugged. "Alesia will likely need some of those CCs though. She's been trying to auction up a Fire Spirit for months now."
"Tell you what." Her brother-in-law tapped his cleft-chin. "Leave it with me. I have Master's notes in a Spellbook somewhere. I'll submit it under your name from my end to Pudong. The negotiation with the Towers usually takes a while. You're not ready for that, not as a first-year student!"
"I have full confidence in the both of you." Gwen smiled, showing her pearly-whites. "I'll ask Mayuree, my friend, if they know of anyone selling a Fire Spirit. Her family runs the House of M!"
"Sounds like someone useful." He nodded approvingly. "Whatever happens, keep your Contingency Ring on."
* * *
By Saturday, the semester was officially over.
Gwen went by her babulya’s laboratory to receive another check-up, confirming with Jun that he would be there to pick her up Sunday morning.
Klavdiya couldn’t help but be stricken all over again, holding the scripts to her heart like she was clutching a precious great-grandchild. She sighed wistfully, shook her head, then stole another glance at the numbers before her gaze became thoughtful and vacant.
“Babulya, you’re embarrassing me.” Gwen tugged at the script in her grandmother’s hand. Her grandmother told her to burn it, which Gwen complied by consigning it to the Void.
“Be careful out there with Jun. Don’t overextend yourself. When you return, we’ll have a big family dinner."
“I will, Babulya. And thanks, dinner sounds wonderful.”
"Percy will be there, I promise."
Her younger sibling had not called nor spoke to her since she had last visited him. It was as though the boy had fallen off the Material Plane. Were it not for a stream of updates from babulya; she would have thought him a phantom from her previous life.
At least Percy 1.0 called every other week, Gwen moped. Hopefully, their forced encounter would bring any misgivings or misunderstandings to light.
* * *
Gwen laid out all her gear on the bed, from smallest to largest.
12 Healing Potion Injectors.
4 Remove Disease Injectors.
4 Cure Poison Injectors.
1 Potion of Invisibility.
1 Potion of Giant’s Strength.
1 Potion of Night Vision.
Most of these were her loot from Nephres.
1 Portable Habitat returned from Kusu.
1000 HDMs in assorted HDM and LDMs.
Assorted cosmetics, body wash, shampoos and conditioners.
Cantrip Cubes - from insect repelling to laundry, to those that produced water and fire.
Shirts - twenty assorted.
Ten pairs of socks, from ankle, knee to thigh length.
1 Skin-suit, military issue.
1 Enchanted Boots of Flying, as well as an assortment of runners, heels, wedges and sandals.
1 Chameleon Cloak, half body.
And so it goes.
Her ring was barely half-full, even with two week’s worth of Korean instant noodles and Spam.
Gwen congratulated herself on the joys of owning a Large Storage Ring.
She was up at 6 AM, unable to sleep for the all the excitement. It was as though she was a child again, waiting for the camp out at Cockatoo Island with her Blackwattle friends. In the intervening time, she had dressed for style and comfort, knowing that Jun would advise her on gear requirement once they were on their way.
Wanting to impress, she slipped into the laced-up thigh-highs that Alesia had loaned to her, pairing it with a ‘Skort’, a kind of shorts-cum-skirt commonly used in tennis. For a top, the sun insisted that nothing but a spaghetti tank-top would do; any attire lacking a cooling glyph would be unbearable in the humidity of Shanghai’s mid-summer. Lastly, a duck-billed cap Tao had given her, enchanted to soak sweat and keep cool, finished off her attire, with her thick ponytail poking through the hat's buckle-window.
Her Message device rang.
“I am down stairs.”
Petra met her in the hall.
“Yep, take care Pats. I’ll bring back some dragon meat!”
“Take care.” Petra embraced her, pressing her cousin against her cheeks. She had been against Gwen's trip with Jun, deeming it too hazardous to poach Lightning-spawns under the nose of a Yinglong.
Richard had faired her well last night, wishing her good luck and promising that he would likewise return from his extended CC-gathering quest in Nantong in one piece. He further informed her that Kusu and Lulan had both joined his ‘Party’. The brother could not leave his sister alone after Lulan met with Richard’s crew and instantly became their Party mascot. When she returned home with freshly-picked flowers one night, Kusu could no longer sit idle.
Gwen had likewise promised Tao and Mina at Friday dinner that she would see them at the big family reunion after her return, and that they would spend plenty of time together in the Winter break.
Of all her friends and family, it was perhaps Mayuree who loathed Gwen leaving the most.
“I am going to hide in my room and not come out until you return,” the Diviner had informed her miserably. “Come back soon! Please!”
“I’ll try my best! Maybe perform an Augury? See how my trip would go?”
Mayuree returned about ten minutes later, her face flush with excitement.
“Awesome! Everything is going to be great! My Augur says great success!”
“Wonderful!” Gwen hugged her friend and gave her a peck on the forehead. “Alright, I’ll be back in one piece, I promise! Wish me luck!”
Outside Gouding B-1's lobby, Gwen met her uncle parked beside his Wrangler-styled Jeep, back against the door, one foot over the other.
Jun wore his military casuals, a tight dark tee-shirt which stretched over his broad shoulders, tapering around his waist and tucked neatly into a set of military cargos, secured with a black leather belt. He had an enormous wristwatch on his right, which Gwen assumed to be a Magical Device and an assortment of rings on either hand.
Her uncle must have recently cut his hair, for his military crop was shaved close to his scalp, giving him a more masculine look than usual. Perhaps out of habit, Jun had kept his beard, which formed a dark halo around his lips, culminating in a villainous goatee.
When he saw her, his eyes lit up.
“Looking lovely there,” he grinned. “Your father would be so happy to see you.”
Gwen had been skipping happily toward Jun when she paused mid-stride. If she had been holding a bag, she would have likely dropped it.
Jun laughed, opening the car door to let her in.
“Jump in.” He effortlessly leapt into the driver’s seat, then slipped on a pair of cool aviators. “Dragons await, but we’re going to see how Hai’s doing first. I bet he misses you like nothing else. It’s on the way!”
* * *
From the penthouse, Mayuree watched Jun’s Jeep enter the main boulevard; she followed Gwen with her eyes until she disappeared in a forest of sedans, trucks and rickshaws.
In her hands, she held her inscribed augury implements - two lengths of dragon teeth from her homeland. When she had attempted to roll the bones, her decahedron Theravāda mandala had steadfastly refused any foretelling of the future, expelling the bones. When she changed to a less potent octogramic mandala, the mulberry fibre upon which the Divination glyphs were inscribed began to smoke.
When her next attempt caught fire, Mayuree knew better than to tempt fate. Such things were beyond her ken; any more prying would invite calamity.