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A note from Wutosama

Sunday CH! 

Warning - Strong FEELs ahead. 


Jun chose the scenic route, venturing off-road into a patrol-trail to acquaint Gwen with the particulars of the local geography.

“Look up,” he told her as they roved through the valley, where occasionally a glimpse of the ‘Yellow’ mountain could be seen in the distance, surrounded by clouds and obscured by mist. “The peak you're now seeing is the Lotus Peak, about 1864m from base to tip, that’s where the Yinglong has its lair. Behind it, just visible, is the Celestial Peak, about 1800m. There could be something else living there, but we haven’t seen it.”

“There's a third rise currently out of sight, the Bright Peak, aka Guanghua Peak; verily the moniker used for the Fudan Towers. Together, the three peaks form a natural leyline called the Three Heavenly Reaches. The locals suspect that there’s an open tear into an Elemental Plane somewhere in-between because the volumetric thickness of Elemental Air up there is visible even with the naked eye - look.”

Gwen looked.

It was true what her uncle said.
When she squinted against the sun, she discerned that so much Elemental Air voluminously smothered the 'cloudy peaks' that the motes had formed into tropospheric cloud-banks. In streams and eddies, they swirled and traversed from peak to peak as if moulded by some unseen hand.

As they approached a tree line, Jun slowed the Jeep to a stop.

“This is the unspoken natural boundary; marked by the Dragon-Pine. Back before the PLA left Anhui, they used to call it the ‘Welcoming Pine.’”

“I can guess why the name changed.”

“Yep, the Yinglong wasn’t very welcoming, at least not to the PLA.” Jun chuckled. He turned the Jeep around and began to retrace their route. Gwen had no idea how her uncle could navigate using nothing but his head. If she had been the one performing the orienteering, they would have driven off a cliff by now.

“You know what's the most famous produce here in Anhui?”

“Lumber?”

“I wish.” Jun slowed the Jeep, then turned into another fire trail. “It’s tea. The best green tea in South China. It’s called the Maofeng Cha, also known as the Tea of Fur Peak. That name had also changed, by the way.”

“Oh?” Gwen was the sort of girl who drank fancy, fashionable fruit tea. Or, as connoisseurs would point out, ‘a sacrilege to tea-craft’.

“We call it Dragon-Peak Tea now, the main plantation is within the dragon's territory, and we trade them for it.”

“Sounds better than furry-tea.” Gwen grinned, wondering if her uncle was in on the joke. "Does the dragon tend to the tea?"

“Hahaha.” Jun chortled. “I don’t know if the dragon is rubbing the tea-trees or dribbling its dragon juice into the ground or what, but you’ll see what I mean once we get back to Hangzhou. There are only a few select places that sell them. Anyway, the circulating currents of Elemental Air up on the Three Heavenly Peaks means the place is permanently clouded. The cloud coverage is good, perfect for us. It means that there’s terrible line-of-sight anywhere from the sky. Once’s we’re over the 1300 mark, there’s very little visibility past twenty to thirty odd meters unless a freakish gust clears the bank.”

“A Sea of Clouds,” Gwen returned, thinking of Casper David Frederich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. Would she be Gwen above the Sea of Clouds? Indeed, the vista above was of sufficient sublimity to stir the Romantic soul. Maybe there was a Lumen-recorder she could buy or borrow from the base. In all her time flitting from one magical place to another, she hadn’t at all thought about taking any pictures. To think that the principal preoccupation of any and all travelling in her old world had been Insta or Facebook photography. A single shot of Almudj from the floating Towers, or the Leviathan lying dead just off the city's coast, would have sent her audience into a frenzy.

What was curious, however, was that the mountain was dark-granite, emerald-pine, blue-sky and white-cloud. There wasn't a spec of yellow to be seen.

“I’ve been thinking for a while, Uncle,” Gwen interjected on Jun's geography lesson. “Why is it called the Yellow Mountain? There’s nothing yellow here, not even mustard.”

“It's a wordplay. It’s said to be the birthplace of the first Sage-King, the Huang Emperor. The word 'yellow' and 'Huang' are homophones. Huangshan is also where the forging of the Pill of Immortality took place, so the name caught on. As for how the moniker spread, we have the Sage Li-Bai, the Jade-Lotus Wanderer himself to blame.”

“Who's Li-Bai?”

Jun cleared his throat, slowing the Jeep until they faced the mountain and the Sea of Clouds.

“Thirty-six immortal peaks,
Their blades touch the heaven.
Morning sun strikes the darkening trees,
Here in this sky-mountain realm.
Men of Han! Raise your mien!
A thousand spring and autumns,
The cranes have come and gone.
Far off I spy a travelling swordsman,
Plucking clouds from the stone crevice."

Uncle and niece sat in the now silent Jeep, watching the clouds descend the distant mountaintops. The breeze was temperate and pleasant, dispelling the oppressive humidity of summer. Wild and thrilling birdsong filtered through the trees, joined by the chirping of cicadas. Leave rustled, diffusing a minty scent of pine wax.

After an indeterminate passage of poetic silence, Jun restarted the engine.

“That's why its called Huangshan.” He beamed at Gwen. “Let’s go.”

* * *


The duo reached the Anhui garrison by late afternoon.

The garrison commander had gotten wind from his returning soldiers that the Ash Bringer himself was in the area and would likely visit them. In anticipation, he had set up a tremendous banquet.

Jun thanked the commander for his hospitality, then bid Gwen join him and the Garrison’s unisex Officer Corp for dinner. Upon their arrival, they had been given generous accommodations in the officer's quarters. Wanting to make an impression, Gwen changed into something semi-formal, taking her uncle's advice that all of the men and women with whom they were liaising would be wearing their dress uniforms.

The banquet itself kicked into gear once Jun arrived. He wore his Army Captain uniform, though his clandestine rank within Internal Security would likely place him at the same level as the base's Commander, if not higher. Jun couldn't compel the movement of troops, but he could necessitate the arrest or decommission of military or bureaucratic officers. Gwen meanwhile, chose the blue-white porcelain high-waisted dress her babulya had given her when they first met, pairing the form-fitting attire with a pair of white ankle-strap pumps.

The male officers' eyes lit up as Gwen curtsied, more so than when Jun shook their hands. The women, consisting of a Major and an Assistant District Secretary, were doubly impressed by both uncle and niece, taking Gwen away from the men at first opportunity to gossip about Jun's private prospects. When Gwen refused to divulge her uncle's preference in women, the daring officers attempted to loosen her lips with rice wine. It was only when Gwen began to slur that Jun rescued her from the two women, citing their early excursion. With great disappointment, the women allowed uncle and niece to elude their grasp, staring at Jun with such fervency that Gwen's skin crawled. She knew that men could be wolves, but now she understood that age-old saying about powerful Chinese women being as hungry as tigers!

By next morning, the two were back in their hiking garbs, ready to roll out. Jun had acquired an updated map for their perusal. He had consulted the garrison's Rangers, updating his knowledge on the local fauna, their whereabouts, and the current occupation of the Yinglong.

“No sighting for two months and three weeks so far,” the Ranger Sergeant enlightened the pair. “If it’s not sleeping - that’s how Dragon’s cultivate, if you didn’t know - then its gone Mao knows where, but chances are its sleeping.”

Jun thanked the man, then called for Gwen. He left the Jeep with the quartermaster, after which the pair embarked on foot. There were no trails into the Three Heavenly Peaks, much less the Sea of Clouds. Aided by Expeditious Retreat and Enhanced Constitution, the pair had to bushwack and trek through the shrubland, using the scenery above and Jun's Compass as orientation.

Though forty, Jun remained at peak physical condition. Gwen meanwhile, was buoyed by her long limbs, her Druidic Essence, her youth and the stolen vitality of her hapless victims.

“You hike like an Army Ranger.” Jun was sweating by the time they reached the tree lines at 1100 meters above sea-level, feeling embarrassed that Gwen appeared more refreshed than exhausted. “Alright, equipment check. No more fun and games after this point. Discovery by the Yinglong could be life or death.”

"I understand."

"Here, take these."

True to form, Jun had thought of everything. Gwen's uncle produced from his Large Storage Ring all the necessary Magic Items for their ‘poaching’ adventure, appropriated from the Internal Security quartermaster.

One Optic-Camouflage Cloak, full size.
One pair of Soundless Boots.
One Hide Presence body-suit, reinforced.

“I know you’ve got Habitat and potions, so I forwent those. Babulya informs me that you’re able to use Teleportation beacons now?”

“Yes, uncle.”

“Good, saves me using my device. You're our Translocator from here on out.”

“I am? But you DDed us earlier.”

Jun tapped his wristwatch.

“Allenberg's Portable Translocator. Usable three times per day. Takes HDMs as well, though the rearming process is rather fiddly.”

“You’re not a Conjurer, uncle?” Gwen had assumed that Jun was a Transmuter-Conjurer.

“I dabble here and there.” Jun smirked. “Nothing like your legitimate Schools of Magic. My major School is Evocation. Transmutation is my secondary school. I also know most of the utility low-tier spells from Conjuration, Abjuration, Illusion and Necromancy.”

"Wow, that must have taken a while." She thought about her own Schools of Magic. Her methodology was literally cheating the system. She counted the number of Schools her uncle knew against her own: Conjuration, Abjuration, Illusion and Necromancy...'

When she looked up at Jun, she caught her uncle grinning at her.

NECROMANCY?!

Her tongue had transformed into sandpaper. Her uncle was visibly trying to keep a straight face. Was it a joke? The cavalier manner in which Jun had dropped the truth bomb seemed to suggest the Ash Bringer was not joking. If it was true, then Jun was now sharing something extraordinarily intimate and delicate. They were now crossing a dangerous threshold of faith.

The trust which Jun invested put Gwen to shame, whom herself had refrained from informing her uncle of many things: Almudj's possession, Henry Kilroy, Elizabeth Sobel, and the ultimate secret that she was a twin-souled cross-dimensional migrant thrust across space and time to usurp his niece's body.

A little alarmed, Gwen tested the waters for buoyancy. Far more accustomed to the crumbs of intimacy, Jun's generosity frightened her, setting her mind on edge.

"I must have misheard."

“I don't think so. I mean what I said."

“Seriously though, Necromancy?”

“It’s an old family secret. A necessity. I suppose my father wouldn’t have told you, and it seems Hai never shared that particular secret either. His selfish instinct for self-preservation astounds me sometimes. But to answer your question, YES. Necromancy.”

If knowledge could induce vertigo, then that was what Gwen was feeling. She felt as though thrust into an outlandish world where all her expectations and understanding of the Song family was turned topsy-turvy.

“Can you clarify?” Gwen demanded reflexively. "Sorry, Uncle, it's just a lot to take in... in a place and time like this."

Jun pulled out his half of the Kirin Amulet.

“You activate this-” he met her hazel orbs with his charcoal irises. “- with Necromancy. That’s our Clan’s secret.”

Gwen couldn't help feeling that Guo was going to jump out from behind a pine tree and start screaming at her. Her brother was using the Amulet, was he not?

“S-should you be telling me this? Does this mean Percy…”

So Percy's a bloody Necromancer?!

“Oh yes.” When Jun saw that his niece was beginning to hyperventilate, he knew it was time to stop yanking Gwen’s chain. If nothing else, the girl's love for her brother was admirable, strange even, considering how little reciprocation occurred. “Woa, let me stop you there. Don’t fret! Look, the incantation may be Necromantic in nature, but it isn't a spell to raise the dead. There's nothing overtly illicit about it other than being explicitly forbidden.”

“Oh, that makes it all better,” Gwen replied with unintended sarcasm; she was still trying to catch her wits from escaping through her ears, then making a run for the woods.

“Watch.”

Jun produced the Core they had seized from the Frogger Alpha.

“Ready? Stand back. A little further. A little more. There you go. Normally, the rite is much more subtle. I am going to show you the full extent of it to vindicate its reputation.”

Gwen nodded, her eyes as wide open as humanly possible. Necromancy! Now that she had calmed herself, she could rationalise that it wasn't so bad. Magister Lee had gone on and on about this. To think he was mocking her Clan as well.

Her fright stemmed more so from social stigma; that and the indoctrined learning that 'Necromantic Magic' was the worst thing to have ever happened to the human race. To think the whole time a Necromancer was two feet away from her!

“Drain Life!”

There was a sudden dimming of the sunlight surrounding Jun, as though the spectrum had been distorted by something invisible. The area around Jun’s feet turned instantly to ash, with every living thing within half a meter radius or so wilting rapidly.

The Frogger Core cracked.

Gwen could feel a presence, a palpable life-force akin to her Druidic Essence, escape from the misshapen orb and enter Jun’s body. Her uncle took the life-force without so much as blinking, then casually stowed the remains.

“Drain Life, the staple spell of the Necromantic school. The transference of the life energy of another to empower one's Negative-affinity incantations. Though considered Necromancy, it's perhaps truer to say that it's a form of latent biomancy. In conjunction with the Kirin Amulet, the Necromantic infusion of Drain Life syphons drained essence, living or undead, into the Kirin stone as pure essence. With another incantation, I can draw forth this purified essence to bolster my body and fuel my casting. Though my Ash is more volatile than your Void, I can remain combat-active for a long time. My single longest bout of combat was 14,000 VMI’s worth of continuous spell-casting, all thanks to the stored essence I had collected. That was the battle that made me famous, did you know that?”

“I didn’t.” Gwen stared at the Kirin Amulet, thinking of Percy’s other half. “I want to hear it though.”

Gods, 14,000 VMI worth of spells? That must have been some battle! She was surprised there wasn't a book about it. That was the thing about this world though, the privilege of information which she had taken for granted in her old world was a rare bird in these neck of the woods.

“I am actually surprised you haven't heard it. Another time then,” Jun teased her. “All I can tell you now is that I managed to spend six years worth of accumulated essence in twenty-two hours of continuous combat-”

"But none of that has anything to do with me now," Gwen cut in a little cattily. "I gave mine up."

"I don't know about that~."

Her ears perked up. The mountains. Lightning Beasts. Yinglong. Maybe it all added up to a different purpose than the one Jun had proposed?

“Is it possible to make my own Amulet?” Gwen pulled her eyes away from the dazzling presence of the solution to all her problems. "Are there Kirins here we can kill?"

“No! Kirins are near Mythic Class!" Jun battered away Gwen's romantic fantasy.

“Not to mention if we did possess a core, where are you going to find an Enchanter of antiquity at the 8th tier, versed in the old magic of the Song Dynasty?”

"Tier... oh..."

Magister Wen was said to be close to 8, but Gwen could hardly trust the knowledge-crazed academic, not to mention her less than pure interest. Her Opa was at tier 6, but the wizened old man was unlikely to progress any higher in his craft. In fact, with the onset of dotage, his proficiency would slip rather than grow.

“Maybe with CCs?”

“Impossible.” Jun shook his head. “A world-class Enchanter would be needed, one that is Chinese and well-versed in ancient magic. You can't tell anyone of this at any rate, else the greatest secret of our Clan would be known to outsiders. The MSS Secretary and the Ash Bringer, Necromancers? Gwen, we wouldn't have enough heads for the CCP to chop! What would happen to grandmother if either of us carelessly blabbed?"

“Does the CCP know?”

“Maybe, maybe not.” Jun shrugged. “I’ve been told no, at any rate. The rite of the Kirin's Blessing remains an heirloom secret.”

“But you just told me.”

“Indeed, I've told a member of my family, a dear member.”

Gwen hesitated.

The taste in her mouth was bittersweet.

“Gwen,” Jun leaned inward, his presence loom over her.

Her uncle’s intimacy made her flush with a strange heat. She had never confronted a family member like Jun before, one who not only trusted her implicitly but was even now opening his heart. She forced herself to face Jun’s paternal gaze, feeling utterly abashed by how differently they felt. Internally, her thirty-something spirit clashed with the teenage oxytocins firing away inside the hemisphere of her brain.

When Jun spoke again, it was with absolute sincerity.

“If and when I am no longer…”

Her uncle’s fatalistic words splashed over her feverous rapture like a bucket of ice-cold water.

“Jun…”

“Let me finish- Gwen, I am a soldier. A good soldier doesn't die in a retirement home. In the probable event that I do perform the ultimate service in Mao's name, I have instructed in my Will that the Kirin Amulet will go to you.”

Gwen felt sick.

She felt a sudden and grotesque loathing for the Kirin Stone. She wanted to pull it from Jun’s neck and dash it against some rocks, or perhaps launch it into the sky and consume it with a Void Bolt.

“Don’t say that!” The voice that issued from her lips felt not her own. Her eyes flashed angrily; her breath came in rags. “NO! I don’t want it! Fuck the Amulet! I'll stick to Consume. I'll eat each and every bloody one of my foes: man, woman, dragon or otherwise. I don't need it!”

Jun touched a hand to her quivering cheeks.

“I have no children. I want it to go to you.”

“You don’t know that!” Gwen interjected. “Maybe there’s something you haven't tried. The Elves might have something. Wen said they have Druids! I’ve got Druidic Essence! I can consult with Almudj, a mythic being! If and when it wakes up! If it can bring life to the dead clay of Australia, it can help you conceive children! Hell, ask Dad for one! He's probably got bastards everywhere!”

Gwen could barely breathe. How did it come to this? They were just about to enter the forest, then Jun made a joke about Necromancy, and then it wasn't a joke; how the hell did they arrive at this morbid bullshit fucked up conversation!?

Jun brushed a lock of wayward hair from her face, one that had fallen out of place in his niece's excitement. The girl's senseless gibbering was endearing; he had to admit, it was nice to know Gwen cared.

How beautiful it would've been, but alas.

“My affinity is 7, almost 8, and I don’t even have a Spirit,” Jun interrupted his naive fantasy. “I am not capable of having children, because the Ashen Mana has made me its vessel. With a touch, I can turn even the Undead to ash. Not even the greatest Necromancy can raise what I have laid to rest. That is why I am the Hero of the Northern Campaign. The Ash Bringer. Gwen, you see; Oblivion and I, we’re old chums. We’ve walked side by side for far too long. I am not a man capable of bringing life. That was the price I paid for power, one which I have accepted. There is balance in all things, Gwen. A man such as I cannot be greedy. Else the Ash would bring calamity to everyone I love.”

“Uncle…”

Gwen touched her chin. Her cheeks were wet.

Was she crying?

Jesus Christ, she chided herself. My internal chemistry must be a hot mess.

She opened her mouth to speak, to find soothing assurances, only to discover herself in the rare circumstance of being lost for words. Her estrangement from her old-world family had meant that never had she entertained the possibility of a loved one being consigned to the void, never to be seen again.

“Uncle, I…”

Her tongue was caught in a barbed wire snare.

She watched Jun’s calloused hands move from her face, mesmerised by his slow, articulate fingers.

In a sudden, swift gesture, Jun pinched her nose, just as he had before in the coffee shop.

“Uncle!” Gwen protested, the adult soul feeling bruised and ashamed.

It was as though a spell had been broken.

“Nobody is dying! You silly goose of a girl!” her uncle chastised her. “Such morbid thinking! I am going to live for a long while yet! So will you, and so will father and mother! Hai’s going to have another child. You’re going to have a baby sibling. You will have children one day too. We’ll be four generations sitting at the banquet table!”

Gwen stared at her uncle, stunned by the sudden change in tone.

“Why should anyone be dying? I am hale and healthy thanks to the Kirin Stone. Your biometrics are fine as well, far better than mine. Caliban is doing God's work, or at least the work of some deity-like power that resides in the Void. Some dark, old God, maybe, who knows? You have in you a balancing force, Gwen, and that makes you precious. My Path is not for you.”

“A dark power, you say? An old God?” Gwen scoffed, thinking of Caliban.

With her sentimentally dashed, she felt at a loss.
In fact, she felt a little hurt.

Why couldn’t have Jun played the doting father for a little longer? She was feeling it! She was really feeling it! It was warm and fuzzy and sour and sweet and bitter all at once! Just a little longer would have sealed up something that had been leaking since she left home at the age of sixteen.

Gwen sighed; instead of an internal retreat, she felt an ill humour rising to the fore; a reflexive response to the blues.

“Uncle, there IS a God in the Void. What if I told you his name is Yog-Sothoth! The Hungry One? The Lurker at the Threshold?”

Jun’s expression became earnest because he couldn't tell whether Gwen was serious.

In response, Gwen opened her arms and raised her hands to encompass the vista of the mountains, just as Jun had done the day before when reciting Li-Bai.

“Great is HE, the protoplasmic flesh that flowed blackly outward to join together and form that eldritch, hideous horror from outer space, that spawn of the blankness of primal time, that tentacled amorphous monster - the noxious one - who froths as primal slime in nuclear chaos beyond the nethermost outposts of Void and time!

"Lä! Yog-Sothoth!”
"Lä! He who lurks in the dark!"

“Mao!” Jun’s expression transformed into a mask of concern. Gwen's behaviour was deeply disturbing. Was the girl trading a secret for a secret? Was this the Pandora's box stowed in his niece's bosom, now uncovered?

“Great Leader’s Ghost! Are you serious?"

"Am I?"

Gwen kept her face serious for as long as she could. When her uncle’s severity proved too much, she burst into laughter.

Jun joined in nervously, carefully studying Gwen's face for signs of madness. When Gwen met his scepticism, she doubled over with a mirth that was half choked laughter. It was only when she became almost blue in the face that Jun perceived that her jest was genuine.

"Oh, Uncle..."

Gwen wiped away ambivalent tears. Her makeup was ruined.

But the time for feeling was over. Up ahead was the imminent business of the tree line and their sojourn into the Sea of Clouds.

“I’ll be changing into the suit. No peeking.”

Jun scoffed.

“Wouldn’t dream of it. You’re too skinny anyway. What's there to see?”

Gwen snorted derisively at her uncle. She seized her boots, cloak and bodysuit, then loudly rustled her clothes to inform her uncle that she was indeed slipping out of one gear and into another.

Jun kept his eyes on the horizon, meditating.

“Yog-Sothoth,” he mumbled to himself, inaudible to Gwen. “The Lurker, the spawn of blankness… blackness? Darkness? The noxious one...”

He consigned the names to memory.

Dreamed up or otherwise, he would have to research this ‘deity’ and make sure that Gwen had not been drawn into some dangerous cult.

Jun shivered, the name and titles gave him the creeps.

Too bad his brother wasn't here, he thought.
Would Hai have understood Gwen better? Handled that smoother?
At the very least, Hai's Salt could ward off The Lurker in the Dark.

 

 

 

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Bonus ::  Gwen's Outfits 

Title Ref :: Sylvia Plath - Daddy


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Wutosama

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

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