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A note from Wutosama

Getting this out - so much work last few days. 

Hopefully can edit thorough another chunk tomorrow. I am up to 185 in drafts. 


The hotel offered a decent breakfast the next morning at 0630, consisting of congee and preserved vegetables, after which uncle and niece were on their way.

In the Jeep, Jun continued the education of his niece.

“Our first stop is the Anhui guard station, after which we’re going dark. I’ve brought a full set of Optic-Camo for you, on loan of course, as well as some survival basics. Now, Hai tells me he brought you a set of self-preserving intimates, yes?”

Gwen thought she heard wrong at first; then she remembered her father's questionable gift. Her friends had roasted her over the incident.

“Yes.”

“Good, I am similarly provisioned. We can’t leave behind anything that might attract predators.”

“Right.” Gwen kept her eyes on the road. She still had it in the original box.

The freeway extending from Hangzhou was a narrow and tapered stretch of bitumen in a significant state of disrepair. Gwen was beginning to see why her uncle had bought his army Jeep and not some cosy sedan. Even with the lifted suspension, water ingress and erratic vegetation made for a teeth chattering experience.

“Hangzhou is the last Frontier city of its size this far west from Shanghai.” Jun noted Gwen's dismay at the road’s growing dilapidation. “This far out, it’s not uncommon to see Demi-humans and Magical Creatures. Huangshan would have been perfect for a Barrier, though the PLA never got to penetrate that far. The Yinglong keeps to itself, and we have to respect its boundaries by keeping to ours. A Shielding Station would disrupt that unspoken agreement.”

“So what happens when Magical Monsters sneak in?”

“More like saunter in, right through the glaring gap between Nanking and Hangzhou,” Jun chuckled. “We have two battalions stationed in Anhui, including three mid-tier Mage-Flights on rotation tours. Unless the Yinglong empties the Three Heavenly Peaks and comes roaring... well, you were in Sydney, you get the idea.”

"Would it be better or worse?"

“Worse, Hangzhou has no Tower, much less Magus Shultz. That man is a world-wonder when it comes to Strategic-Class Artillery,” Jun confessed more candidly than Gwen liked to admit. “Assuming the Hangzhou Frontier holds up for twenty-four hours, the PLA or the Pudong Tower could Teleport to its aid. The PLA Tower was built for Epic-class engagements. Its superstructure can provision for up to two thousand active Mages up to the rank of Magi, the Dragon’s as good as a pile of priceless ingredients.”

“You make it sound painless,” Gwen regarded her uncle, watching the passing scenery refract from his cool aviators.

“Nothing's that easy, of course. Four million NoMs are living in Hangzhou. Maybe two will survive an attack of that scale. As for moving the Superstructure, Hangzhou will semi-permanently entertain the PLA Tower for the next decade.”

“Would the city ever recover?”

“Sure. Two, three decades? Shorter if we can migrate citizens over from Shanghai. But you know what won't recover? The Yinglong. It'll be gone for good. Forever. Humanity can finally expand the Anhui Frontier. Terraform it into an Orange Zone. The resources alone are going to keep Shanghai going for a decade.”

"But that's not going to happen."

"Of course. A pyrrhic defence against a Yinglong is a necessary act of survival. Attacking a Yinglong while it's in its lair? I don't think we have enough Mages in Shanghai to invest in a conflict of that magnitude. Assuming we fight all out against the Yinglong and its children, Total War and all that, I’d say we’ll be down anywhere between a thousand rank and file Mages, a hundred or so Maguses, and at least a few Magisters.”

“That’s-”

“Potentially a whole generation wiped out,” Jun reiterated the devastation. “Sure, we’ll be fine for now. Dead Dragon and all. What about the next calamity? Suddenly, there’s a generational gap. Shanghai is missing a hundred Maguses! That means potential Magisters! Maybe a Meister! Then there’s the lost potential that at least one-fiftieth of those acolytes would have survived to become something greater. That’s why humanity cannot persist in protracted wars. Humanity neither possesses the lifespan nor the personnel. Even if the NoMs produce a sudden glut of talented individuals, it won't help. We need BOTH quality and quantity to expand. Without enough rank and file, how do we keep the Demi-humans out?”

“Does Hangzhou have a Magical Creature problem? In Australia, they're a constant menace. Most of the military budget is spent on Purging the east coast; that and the Saurian tribes up in Queensland."

"It's done seasonally here. We’ll be heading through the lowlands, where it's spawning time. As for types, in South-East China, we get all sorts. Mermen from the ocean, Merfolk from the Changjiang; ranging from semi-human Mermaids to those cannibalistic little River-gobs that swarm; its the diverse geography."

"Are the ones here as strong as our Mermen?"

“Not inland, and especially not individually. Only the South Pacific can throw up Siege and Titan class beasties. The River-folk are more like vermin; impressive when they reach a critical mass. Habitually, they're the Dragon-kin's primary food-.”

The Jeep struck a patch of caked mud. Gwen had to hold onto the rails to endure the crumbling, half-solid silt. Her uncle continued unabated, enjoying the rough ride.

"- the main problem is how long it takes for them to mature. That's why we have to keep purging the local population. It's endless. How long do you suppose it takes to train a Mage to the right tier of Magic?"

“Ten Years?” Gwen replied very carefully. "Well, 'twenty' from birth?"

“More like thirty, if we’re talking about mastery of a single School of Magic. Most Mages are capped around tier 5, give and take. THIRTY YEARS Gwen, to produce a Mage capable of holding their own. There's an additional caveat; how many of those do you suppose are Combat Mages?"

Gwen shook her head, feeling the moisture of the lowland cling to her hair. There was a stink of decay in the air which hinted at swampland and stagnant water.

"Ten to one in tier 1 cities. A little over five to one on the Frontier."

"Oh?"

"How long do you think it takes to pop out a combat-ready water-Gob?”

“Six?” Gwen seemed to recall good sized Barramundi took that long to mature.

“Three,” Jun remarked. “They're fish. They spawn, meaning broods are usually ten to twenty thousand per; once per annum. At around two years, your average water-imp is fully functional. The rarer ones take longer, of course, just under a decade for a Riven Water-Priest - there's no need for institutional guidance neither; Merfolk magic is innate. The egg-heads at the academy think it’s an evolutionary trait or some form of endemic memory ingrained in the bloodline.”

“T-Ten thousand?! How are we not swamped with fish-faced mermen?!” Gwen started alarmingly. She could believe it if it were the ocean, for the Pacific was a big place, far deeper and wider than any terrestrial landscape.

“One, we Purge annually. Two, the tribes are cannibalistic. Three, they're food - for us, and for the Dragon-kin.”

"Oh..."

"Caught between a rock and a hard place," Jun chuckled. "Remember that 'famous' Vinegar Fish? Now you know why it's so tender."

"You mean..."

"Well, as I said, its spawning season."

Gwen first felt ill, then she felt guilty, followed by remorse. It was a Man-eat-Fish versus Dragon-eat-Fish versus 'Hey! That's my fish!" world. Strewth, it must SUCK to be a fish, especially a one that possessed the sapience to complain.

The car rocked again, shaking her from her thoughts. They were entering a sort of low-land floodplain. The road itself was inundated by patches of water left by episodic showers.

Just as uncle and niece came to a lull in their conversation, there came a cacophony of commotion from beyond the hill. For Jun, the explosive crackle of Evocation and the muffled thumping of Abjuration Shields was self-evident. As for Gwen, it took her a little longer to catch on.

"Is there a fight ahead of us?"

"Yeah, sounds like they're in the thick of it, at least one Evoker. Not uncommon along this stretch of the road. The Merfolk need food for their young, and Humans happen to be growing copious amounts of food."

Jun slowed the Jeep to a halt, the engine plinked beside an algae-covered milestone.

“We’ll proceed on foot," Jun commanded her, his casual confidence was infectious. “Your call. Show me what you can do.”

“Yessir!” Gwen deployed her Familiars. “Caliban! Ariel!"

"Invisible Familiar!”
"Invisible Familiar!”

Watching the marten and the void-worm fade from sight, Jun whistled.

“That is an evil spell.” Her uncle listened for the sound of Caliban’s slithering. “Well, lead the way.”

The two made it over the crest, gliding above the ground via their flight spells, bypassing the mud and grime. A battleline of human soldiers pushing against a swarm of amphibian-frogmen came into view.

“URRGH'ug! Kreee!”

The most salient spectacle in the chaotic melee below was a frog-giant the size of a water buffalo. Conversely, the unfortunate victim of the frogmen's ambush was precisely one buffalo. From the looks of it, the frog-things were trying to get away with their loot of flesh when the human patrol caught them red-handed.

“A Frogger-alpha,” Jun remarked. "Big bastard too, the smaller ones are Spawllings."

“Really?” Gwen turned to the frogs, pondering how the swarm managed to cross the road, evading the traffic. Three dozen of its spawns accompanied the great brute; tadpole-men covered with mucus-armour, carrying bladed reeds on poles that reminded her of a half-pike.

The Human unit fighting the frog-folk, to Gwen’s astonishment, were NoMs backed by two Mages. One of the casters was an Abjurer, while the other Gwen guessed to be an Evoker-Transmuter.

NoMs, equipped with armaments! Gwen felt taken back. It was the very first time Gwen had ever seen NoMs fighting Magical Creatures. The infantry looked to be armed with staves enchanted for elemental damage, with a command, the pole extended and retracted. Whenever the head struck an enemy, the pole-weapon sent out a brilliant burst of deadly energy from the business end.

“A Frontier Militia, likely from the local agricultural-garrison.”

Jun folded his arms, waiting for Gwen to act.

His niece studied the battle below. The Merfolk were retreating, but neither side had casualties. The sticks wielded by the militia were having a hard time penetrating the mucus of the amphibian-men, while the van-sized frog-giant kept the Merfolk battle line from crumbling by holding off the two Mages. Occasionally, it spat a glob of viscous-white liquid which looked like glue, disrupting the battle-line.

Despite being outnumbered, the Militia was doing well. The Abjurer, in particular, was keeping his men safe with timely Shields. It was ten against thirty, but thanks to what Gwen assumed were buffs from the Transmuter, the NoMs held their positions.

“Do they even need my help?” Gwen entreated her uncle.

Jun crossed his arms, his expression unreadable.

“Should I be discrete?”

Jun channelled Guo's stoicism.

Gwen turned back to the scene.

“Alright then. Here I go.”


* * *


“Shield!” Rurong Peng wondered if his sergeant had a plan other than trying to grind the Merfolk's morale, hoping that the frog-men ran out of stamina before they ran out mana.

The squad was doing well, perhaps better than he had anticipated.

When they had arrived and disembarked, no one vomited, and no one complained. The men simply formed up, made two rows, then awaited their buffs.

They found the frog-folk raiding party not far from the location described by their first intelligence report. A local farmer had been accosted while taking his buffalo out to forage; he fled, abandoning his charge to inform the garrison of the raiding party.

When it was clear to the frogmen that they could not escape with their quarry, they attacked.

Li's squad fell into formation with Rurong at its centre and the Sergeant himself hovering behind them, forming a V-wedge.

With the melee joined, Rurong’s work began in earnest. The attacks from the smaller of the Merfolk were not difficult to deflect, it was the big bastard duelling sergeant Li that took out his mana by the increments, pulverising his Shields one by one.

His sergeant was doing well though, gouging out chunks of its Demi-human flesh with fire. As for the NoMs, they were performing better than last time; during their first engagement against a mud-salamander, half of them had fled.

Sergeant Li flittered backwards, drifting through the air as another globular of glue flew overhead. Rurong altered the path of the projectile with a deflection Shield, but the viscous liquid adhered to the Earthen crust, remaining in midair until Rurong could be sure no unfortunate NoM was going to get caught below. The extra second was vexatious, Rorong complained, a waste of mana.

“Careful,” his Sergeant advised via Message. Rurong hailed back an affirmative.

“Scorching Ray!” Sergeant Li let loose his favourite spell, blasting three beams of fire into the Frog-spawn’s hide, turning a chunk of its flesh into char as the surrounding mucus boiled, sending up a great stink smelling of rotten reeds and fish.

Before the Sergeant could load up another, the giant frog-man reared up on its hindquarters, rising to almost four meters in height.

“Cao!” Rurong swore. He had seen the ability before in similar creatures but hadn’t accounted for the frog to still possess enough of its bile to execute the AOE.

‘GLUUUARRRRGH!’

A torrent of sticky liquid poured forth from the frog’s lips in a viscus, semi-circle arc.

“Shield!”
“Earthen Wall!”

Rurong was very proud of his simultaneous casting. It a staple ability of the Abjuration school, though only a single percentile could claim that their Shield was near-instantaneous.

The conjured wall caught half of the viscous vomit, while his Shield prevented the NoM closest to the strike zone from becoming enmeshed.

The same could not be said of Three NoMs further down the battle line.

“Caonima!” Rurong growled. “Sarge!”

“Hold it steady!” Sergeant Li shouted back. “Cover me! I’ll try to cut them loose.”

Not even Enhanced Strength was enough to allow the NoMs to escape the suddenly solidifying gloop. There was a mild acid within the creature's phlegm which immediately began its terrible work.

“Cao, it burns!”

“Don’t come! I think its poisonous!”

“Save me! Sarge! Save me! ARRRRRGH!”

Rorong felt a wave of annoyance engender in his chest. The NoMs were drilled especially not to panic. Mass panic would impact morale and could lead to a rout. Without the platoon holding down the little fuckers, how could he and Li focus on fighting the big bastard?

Sensing the Abjurer’s preoccupation, the amphibian-giant launched an attack, unrolling a corkscrew, arm-thick length of pink flesh from its mouth to ensnare one of the hapless NoMs.

“No! Help me! I don't want to die!”

It was L04, the coward of the bunch, always the first to panic.

Rorong swore under his breath; he felt no compulsion to risk his Sergeant’s safety to preserve the useless meat bag. Fuck em, Rurong bemoaned, even if L04 returned safely, the Er-bi would be whipped within an inch of his life for failing to maintain discipline and thusly endangering the platoon. The Commander had reiterated that it was best for useless conscripts to be weeded out naturally. He had called it Social Darwinism; a term coined by an old English Magi who studied Magical Beasts, theorising that natural-selection was what made Wildland Creatures superior combatants.

“Caliban! Onslaught!”
“Ariel! Ball Lightning!”

A shrill female voice echoed across the clearing.

Rurong whipped his head toward to the voice's source. He spied two human silhouettes floating above the steep rise. That the intruders were flying meant Mages, not only that, one of them was a quasi-elementalist.

His hypothesis was soon answered by screaming orbs of crackling cobalt striking three frogmen in quick succession. The self-seeking bolts sizzled the thick mucus on contact, then burst into a hysterical brilliance, resulting in an eruption of flesh, amphibian-gore, and mucus.

The startling ultra-violence forced a pause in the combat, followed by an even lull of silence as an enormously hideous humanoid-toad materialised from thin air.

A Gila? Rurong had graduated from technical college and thus knew the likeness of Hengsha Dungeon's signature Monster. From the icy prickling of imminent death engendering in his spine, Rurong knew he might be in deep shit.

A wave of revulsion and vertigo permeated the battlefield with the Death-Gila at its epicentre. The NoMs fell backwards, a few becoming violently ill; others screamed insensibly; L04 became incontinent.

Shit! Cao! Rurong looked toward his Sergeant, whose expression was ashen, suggesting he was likewise affected by the Death-Gila’s necrotic Aura.

The Merfolk too were thankfully smitten by the sudden appearance of the three-meter amphibian. The lesser ones fell to the floor and began to thrash and convulse, while the larger ones turned to flee. Their giant leader appeared as though it was facing down a cobra. It halted where it stood, its haunches frozen, too terrified to move.

“Sarge! Now’s our chance!”

“Corporal! Get back! Get everyone back now!”

The Sergeant’s response flipped a switch in Rorong’s head.

What if these were ROGUE Mages? Those bastards never suffered witnesses to live!

“Back! F03! S04! Get back! C11, you take point! MOVE YOUR ASSES!”

The NoMs however, were too terrified to obey.

“CAONIMA! You bastards want to die! SHABI! MOVE IT!”

With Rurong's abuse ringing in their ears, the NoMs came to; the first was F03, then S04, then the others began to mobilise.

“FORMATION! FOR MAO'S SAKE! FUCKING SPELL FODDER! STAY IN FORMATION!”

The idiots! Rurong growled, wishing he could dispatch one to motivate the others. Supposedly, during Mao’s unification campaign, the Commissariat system worked wonders to motivate the NoMs. When a squad failed to exercise an order or delayed the speed of a battlefield manoeuvre, the presiding officer could execute the slowest member, thereby saving the rest of the squad from annihilation.

Heedless of the humans panicking, the Death-Gila began to move.
Terrified, the Frogger-alpha spat a globe of sticky-residue toward it.

What would the Gila do?!

Rurong couldn’t look away. He had heard that the Death Gila could use Necromantic magic, Drain Life, Enfeebling the enemy before tearing it apart.

Without even slowing, the Death Gila opened its maw.

A Death Beam?! Rurong’s heart hammered at his throat.

In one swift motion, the Gila caught the spit-ball in its mouth-pouch, swallowing it wholesale.

“…”

Rurong vomited a little in his mouth.


* * *

“Caliban can perform complex actions independent of my commands,” Gwen explained carefully to Jun; she had no desire for her uncle to be surprised in their dragon-poaching journey. “It leaps, jumps, uses abilities; Caliban even attacks and retreats via its own volition.”

“Yet it’s not a spirit.” Jun tapped his chin. "How curious."

Gwen located three more targets; she made the mental image in her mind, then executed the necessary somatic components to activate her newest incantation.

“Ball Lightning!”

Three orbs flew from Ariel, some hundred odd meters away, seeking their targets. Ariel itself was busy mauling a frog-spawn with gleeful bloodlust.

“Why aren't we exterminating them?”

“The Merfolk possess low-cunning.” Jun observed Caliban moving in on the adult-alpha. “You should leave the small ones to tell the tale. An overwhelming force always discourages the tribe from sending out larger raiding parties. It's better to eat your neighbours than to risk warriors, gain no supplies, then become food for the very neighbours you spared.”

Meanwhile, Caliban's claws dug into the giant Frogger's torso with a terrific force, vivisecting the creature in a horrific onslaught; cutting through its excretion without apparent effort.

“Did you figure out how Caliban collates morphic forms yet?”

“No.” Gwen shook her head. “I thought it just took whatever it ate at first, but now that I think of it, it probably has something to do with affinity, or preference, or Cores.”

“Speaking of Cores.” Jun took her hand. “Let's test that hypothesis.”

“!”

One Dimension Door later, the two of them were face to face with the dying Frogger. In its final moments, the Merfolk-alpha recognised the origin of the creature that had been its undoing. Its intelligent eyes bulged with hate and despair just as Caliban raised a bladed appendage and dashed its brains out, forcing a tennis-ball sized eye to pop from its socket.

Jun stood casually beside the corpse as its assorted organs failed. The creature was almost three hundred kilograms of flesh and bone, and its amphibian offal died sequentially. The air was punctuated with the sound of gurgling and popping as spleens ruptured and vessels deflated until finally, all sound ceased.

“Ariel, Caliban!”

Gwen retrieved her familiars.

Jun dug through the body, kicking it apart with his combat boots. With a triumphant expression, he retrieved a small core the size of a fist with Mage Hand.

“Unimpressive, tier 3 at best,” remarked the Ash Mage disappointedly upon closer inspection. "Elements' all muddled up too."

As uncle and niece picked about the body for potential loot, the Abjurer and Transmuter approached them. By now it was self-evident that they were on the same side.

“Sir!” The Transmuter saluted. “Sergeant Li, Anhui 22nd Militia, may I petition that you identify yourself?”

The Abjurer fell into step behind his superior officer. Behind them, the troop of frightened but unharmed NoMs regarded the duo with dreadful expressions, clutching their staves with white-knuckled fear. A few of them were covered in their own sick. One man stayed away from the rest, his pants heavy with noxious cargo.

Jun returned a salute. Gwen bowed.

The striking mien of the girl as she raised her head and brushed back a lock of indifferent hair diffused the tension somewhat, though the mountainous carcass reminded the Anhui Militia that the very same girl had summoned the Death-Gila.

“Jun Song. Captain. Internal Security.”

“The Ash Bringer?!” The Sergeant raised an eyebrow. How could he have missed it? He kicked himself. He had watched the propaganda Vid-cast religiously. It was mandatory viewing during the NCO orientation.

“Captain Jun?!” His Abjurer companion was beside himself. The propaganda made a strong impression. “S-Sir! Can I have your autograph?!”

“Corporal!” Sergeant Li snapped at his subordinate.

“It’s no trouble.” Jun materialised a scrapbook. “Your name?”

“Rurong Peng! Sir! The boys won’t believe it!”

Jun wrote something nice for the young man, signed the page, then neatly tore it from the book.

“Thank you, Sir!”

“You did well, Rurong.” Jun patted the man on the shoulder. “We need more men like yourself and Sergeant Li.”

“It’s our duty!” Li beamed, his eyes strangely moist with gladness.

Gwen watched the proceedings with great interest, marvelling at her Uncle’s charisma.

“May I inquire...” Li turned to Gwen apologetically.

“My niece. We’re in Anhui for business,” Jun replied cryptically. "I know the protocol. Here are our Passes."

“Of course, Sir, sorry I asked,” Sergeant Li apologised. He checked their Passes, then respectfully returned the tablet. “May we be dismissed?”

“You may, Sergeant."

“Thank you, Captain, Miss Song.”
“Sir! Ma'am!” Rurong saluted the both of them.

“Sergeant. Corporal.”
“Bye!” Gwen bid the militia goodbye.

“That went well,” Gwen commented to Jun, wondering if she 'did good' enough to receive a pat on the shoulder.

“I am frankly impressed.” Jun regarded his niece in a new light, patting her shoulder. “Caliban held his own against a tier 5 Monster without endangering others. So Ariel can displace and extend the range of your Evocation, hmm? Very useful indeed.”

“Thank you, Sir!” Gwen mimicked the militiamen, knocking her heels as she touched her fingers to her forehead.

Jun laughed.

“Good, keep your spirit up,” he replied ominously. “We’ll be trying our luck with the quasi-dragon spawn soon. They're going to be tough customers.”

“A real challenge, Uncle?”

“Naturally.” Jun nodded. “The ones we're after are immune to Lightning. Besides, the dragon-kin possess universal elemental-resistance. The purer the bloodline, the harder it'll be to score a clean hit. For now, we’ll visit the local garrison to check in, after which we’ll proceed on foot. Hopefully, you’ll get your first taste of dragon-flesh by tomorrow night!”

Gwen nodded her head, her eyes full of eagerness.

Dragon-spawn.
The apex existence within this region and the next.
She wondered if draconian flesh tasted better than chicken.

 

 

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About the author

Wutosama

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

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