“A wonderful match.”
Guo averted his eyes when Gwen turned to glare at him. The girl was uncannily mature, but she was easily caught up in her emotions. For all her talent and her mysterious resistance to Enchantment, a pathos-driven prod in the right direction was all that was necessary to get her blood boiling.
In all honesty, Guo admired Gwen’s reflexive, dog-like willingness to attack anyone threatening her loved ones. His problem was that the girl counted dangerous individuals such as Schultz and De Botton among that number and that her loyalty could never be monopolised.
Opposite Guo, Secretary Liu was having doubts of his own.
“Yes,” the man muttered.
Liu scoured his memory, trying to recall the exact words from the Fungs' report.
How was it possible for an offensive Elementalist to tank over twenty exchanges without refreshing her guard even once, especially when armed with only tier 1 Abjuration?
The Secretary wasn't alone in his bemusement.
The very same queries dominated the conversation beside and behind the two Patriarchs, with the wedding guests likewise marvelling at the supernatural rigidity of Gwen’s immovable and impenetrable Shielding.
“Huh,” a voice meditated out from somewhere in the crowd. "Anyone remember the Morning Star, Magus Shultz, the Paladin of the Sydney Tower?”
“What of it?”
“He’s a Quasi-Elementalist Offensive caster, but he possesses a hard-point Shield."
“But Shultz is from Oceania. This girl's from the Song family."
“Who knows, isn't the girl half-Russian?”
“I thought she’s half Commonwealth?”
"That's not a country-"
"She looks like a full-blooded gweilo to me…”
"No, she's from Oceania! I am sure of it!"
Liu slowly turned toward Guo, an unpleasant premonition playing across his scalp.
“Your granddaughter, she isn't… acquainted with Oceania, is she?”
"No - more so JOINED at the hip. You may think of Gwen as a sister of sorts to the Morning Star, heir to the late Magister’s Kilroy’s Seat on the Oceania council of Ten, and current Master of the Sydney Tower.”
The long and deliberate range of titles hammered away at the Patriarch.
Liu would have sworn and cussed but for Guo's presence.
Guo kept the mirth from reaching his mouth.
Liu was a District Secretary, a stranger to the matter of foreign affairs. Though he may act the master of his domain, the realm outside his principality nonetheless loomed, dark and dangerous, full of unknowns the Secretary could not know. Despite lording over ten million souls across the rivers and lakes of Jiangnan, the Secretary, in Guo’s honest opinion, remained the idiomatic frog in the well.
It was the common disease of the Chinese, rulers of a Kingdom isolated from the world since antiquity. Even the CCP, hoping for a larger slice of the pie on the global stage, suffered from this collective malady.
How unfathomable someone like Gunther Shultz must seem to a man like Liu. The existence of a Mage whose name was known around the world, whose individual capability could make or break treaties with Demi-humans, was as strange and distant as the Yinglong on the Mount.
What's terrifying was that Shultz was only in his late thirties.
If one considered that Radiant Mages had one of the longest natural lifespans bar healers; who would dare to anger a man like that? A man who, given time, and the right political climate, would undoubtedly assume the mantles of a Magi?
What's more curious was that Liu had so many details missing from his intelligence. It seemed that whoever had ensnared the Secretary was likewise an opportunist, one who stood to gain regardless of the outcome.
As for Gunther Shultz, it wasn't as though Guo hadn't entertained the possibility. When he had first known the girl's connection to the Sydney Tower, he had masticated the possibility of sending Gwen to the North.
Perhaps, her siblings-in-craft would follow their wayward sister; if a Mage of the Morning Star's calibre could lend the PLA his support on the Northern Front…
But Guo had banished that fancy to the abyss, nipped the idea in the bud.
The risks did not outweigh the rewards.
Not that Klavdiya would have allowed it.
There were lines not even he dared to cross, and his wife was one of them.
“Who will be your next candidate?” Guo sipped his tea.
“Your confidence may be tested yet.” Liu adjusted his posture, regaining some of his composure. “So she has a spirit? Did she receive it in the Purple Zone in Huangshan? You knew the risks of sending your son and granddaughter there, no?”
“Speak for yourself.” Guo met his opponent’s eyes, sensing Liu trying to wiggle his way out of the predicament. “You authorised Jun's pass.”
“Only to venture past the dragon-pine.” Liu curled his lips. “If they murdered one of the Yinglong’s children for its core - or perhaps, a great number of the Yinglong’s flock, it would be a diplomatic incident of significant proportions, no?”
“Perhaps Gwen’s spirit is a goat with the lighting attribute. You can surely see how horn-headed she can be.” Guo shrugged. “If the Yinglong would assault Hangzhou on behalf of goats, I’ll go and negotiate with it myself.”
“Oh, I am confident they had quite the misadventure.” Liu rapped the table with his nails. “The Anhui commander reported quite the commotion from the mountain. Lotus Peak was storming for days.”
“The weather on the Mount changes as often as a woman's mood." Guo chortled. "Who’s the next carp on the chopping board?”
“It's true what they say about you Northerners.” Liu turned back to the match. “No tears until you see the coffin, eh?”
* * *
“Competing for the House of Liu, hailing from the Five-Lake Alliance, Sui Xì of Suzhou!”
Gwen’s third match was against a young man who’d been a part of the 'heckling' crew. She studied the man with Detect Magic as he stepped onto the stage - sensing Abjuration and Conjuration. When Sui caught her eyes, the smug Elementalist's immediate reaction was to send Gwen a cringeworthy wink, then give her a once-over with his beady eyes, like a butcher inspecting a choice cut.
Gwen averted her eyes, fighting down the revulsion threatening to overthrow her store of rice-wine. There was something about the guy that made her think of swamps and sewers, and his flirtatious behaviour hardly helped matters. Don't be intimidated! Gwen rebuked herself for losing her cool. It was pointless getting upset over a pond-scum when eating shit was in its blood.
“Duellists, are you ready?”
Magus Ly had taken up his usual residence above the duelling arena.
“I am ready!”
Gwen cranked her dial to eleven.
She wasn’t sure if Ariel was a ‘spirit’, but the fact remained that Ariel could bend and redirect her Elemental Lightning. It was impossible for her to know whether Ariel's ability was innate, evolved, or pilfered from a core. That had to wait until she could run her Familiar through a Cog-Chamber.
“Wall of Water!”
Her stunning-assault was caught by a sudden swell of brown, briny liquid, smothering the explosion before it could fully form.
The wall of water grew to twice its size by the third exchange, enveloping the right side of the duelling arena. When Gwen's Lightning Bolt struck the fast-moving liquid, the plasma induced a localised explosion of superheated steam, then diffused harmlessly as the electricity grounded itself.
Shit! Gwen readied a Shield in case Sui had a counterstrike ready.
You’re shitting me, she cursed. The bastard’s a turtle-specced Abjurer!
But she should be glad that the bastard was only tier 4; higher incantations such as the tier 6 Greater Resist Elements would cut her effective damage by as much as 80%.
Gwen wondered how long it would take for the Water Abjurer to OOM, or if it was at all possible to ionise the water to such a degree that her electrical attacks permeated the man’s Shielding, electrocuting him through this triple-layered defence.
Six slivers of water, each the size of javelins, launched from the wall of water.
The prick didn't even have to lower his Shield or his Wall! Gwen fumed. Water Mages had a versatility that few other elements could match.
The half-hearted barrage clattered harmlessly against her barrier.
Water Mages had woeful damage potential until they could command the volume and degree Richard had obtained with the help of his Undine Spirit. Speak of her cousin, Gwen realised that Sui was what Richard aimed to be: a Utility-Shield Mage whose versatility could suit a multitude of roles within a party.
A second and third blast of ionised electricity struck the Wall of Water, evoking a profusion of Lichtenberg figures in vivid cobalt. Before her charged particles could spread, however, they were quickly circulated back into the Elemental Plane.
Gwen formed a semi-dome barrier above her.
Rather than a hailstorm, it was more accurate to say that a localised downpour of bone-chilling water pounded down on her protective barrier.
She gnashed her teeth.
A turtle-specced Mage indeed!
She should have asked Richard what his weakness was and how she could kick his ass at a moment's notice.
She channelled a good chunk of her mana into the continuous blast.
After the initial explosion, her attack reached the Shield, but no further.
A volley of brackish water made for her Shield.
Stinking WHAT? Gwen reflexively chose to dodge the cannonballs.
The fetid-smelling water had impressive mass, if nothing else, and Gwen wasn't sure how well her Non-Newtonian Shield dealt with such wide-area impacts. The last thing she wanted was to be drenched by an attack with the prefix 'Stinking'.
When she landed again, her priceless shoes splashed into puddles of the algae-filled, odious liquid, foul enough to turn her stomach.
Her sinus first wrinkled, then wilted, assaulted by what could only be the refined fart of an ageing dog mixed with week-old prawn.
Was the man attempting victory by stench?
His command of the 'water' elements was nothing she had never see before; usually, Water Mages conjured crystal clear water from the Elemental Plane. Sui, on the other hand, appeared to draw his power from the local storm drain.
FUCK! MY SHOES! Gwen's mind rioted.
They were self-cleaning, but GOD, the Hermès were peep-toes! And the water was getting in between her piggy-wigglies! The sensation was so revolting that her sole felt crudely violated.
Just as she was considering whether feeding Ariel a mote of Almudj’s Essence would kill Sui outright; her opponent made his move.
The puddle of water, now trapped within her semi-dome Shield, suddenly came to life. Forming into dozens of flat-worms about three-foot long and about two inches in girth. Due to the muffling effect of the Wall of Water and her Shield, Gwen had entirely missed the Conjurer's invocation.
The shivering of her spine came too late, for it was immediately answered by the sensation of something squirming about her toes.
As one, the semi-translucent flatworms slid up for her unprotected body, plastering their cold and sinuous torsi onto her dress, her naked legs, and her feet.
The assault was so slimy and disgusting that Gwen instinctively let loose a blood-curdling cry natural to the fairer sex.
“Ah-Nu! Strangle her! Do it now!”
She heard the frantic voice of Sui calling for her blood.
The worms tightened their hold.
The physical sensation was like being restrained by silk, the worms were only minutely more powerful than a man, but the repugnance Gwen felt was enough to make her want to quit the world because they STANK.
One of them made for her neck, while another tried to move under her skirt.
MOTHER FUCKER! One of the fucking things just touched her-
What kind of fucking magic specialises in BAD touch?!
Circulating her Almudj's Essence, she dug her finger into one of the flatworms to try and pry one off her thighs. She succeeded in removing a length of worm about ten inches long by hand, but the rest of the damned thing then split into two.
SHIT! SHIT! SHIT!
One of them had reached her neck.
IT REEKS! Her brain was hammering at her body to do something, threatening a union strike over hostile working conditions.
Gwen was reminded of Caliban's screaming, revolted victims.
Was karma a bitch like they said?
Was public humiliation what Sui had hoped?
She had to calm down.
So what if slimy parasites were trying to dig under her skin?
No big deal.
She would take a hot shower later and cry it out under the bed.
Her mind raced.
Gwen displaced herself to the right, allowing her body to be enveloped by electricity.
A few of the worms disintegrated.
The rest continued their gleeful molestation.
FUCK A DUCK! The AOE from the short-ranged teleport did not manifest from her skin, but as a blast-ring around her body. NO SHIT, her brain quaked. If the electric-nova came from her body, it would burn away her clothes during manifestation.
More foul water came her way.
OH, YOU LITTLE SHIT! Gwen swore internally. To think she would be pushed to this extent by a turtle-Mage. Richard’s choice of Conjuration and Abjuration with water was a broken skill-set.
Despite her struggling concentration, Gwen managed to Shield herself.
More flatworms emerged from the displaced water.
A slithering worm slid across her thigh, tightening around her legs, setting off goosebumps all over her legs.
By now, Gwen's scandalous dress was soaked. Its silk fabric wasn’t intended to be worn ‘wet’ under the best of circumstances. Already, a hush had gone out over the audience, and parents had covered their children's innocent eyes. Lord knew what the fuck the wedding guests were seeing as she stamped and squirmed, tearing out worms and throwing them against the Force Barrier.
She took a deep breath.
The words 'FUCK IT' flashed neon-hot across her brain.
Gwen had wanted to avoid the most obvious solution.
A silken silence descended upon the stage.
She became clad in midnight.
That is - 'only' midnight.
The dress was gone, consumed by the Void Skin.
As for her shoes -
Gwen held her breath...
...the peep-toe platform sandals were untouched.
VIVA LA HERMÈS! Her heart sang out. Had the shoes been destroyed, somebody would have been vivisected, live on stage.
But in all honesty, she was now in a killing mood.
If there existed a temperature gauge for how pissed she was, the bulb-end would have blown several exchanges ago.
The Void Skin masked her features, but it's protection consumed an excessive volume of vitality when defending its caster. Her Almudj’s Essence protected her mana conduits from manifesting Void, but not from the expenditure. As a matter of fact, even losing the dress had cost her vitality.
Tapping into Ayxin’s scale, she willed the draconic-essence into her mana channels.
Dragon-fear radiated from her in torrents, blessedly dulled by the Force Barrier protecting the audience.
The excess water displaced about her body suddenly formed into a single pool of collated, murky liquid, then promptly fled for the Wall of Water.
A FUCKING SPIRIT! Gwen felt a sudden gladness.
So it was a Spirit and not Sui.
Ergh~, to think a bloody Spirit of all things had molested her.
But a flatworm? Who the fuck grinds flatworms? Those things were harmless bottom-feeders that consume algae and grime. How many flatworms would a guy need to kill before one drops a Core? How many Cores before there's a Spirit? Could it be that Sui's Clan 'raised' flatworms?
If nothing else, she had to admire their tenacity.
No wonder the guy gave off a slimy, smarmy, sticky feeling.
But enough of that.
She was in a precariously shameful position now.
It was the very same dilemma Alesia had endured.
Either wear the same elementals attuned ‘uniform’ day in and day out.
Or risk exposure on the off-chance she had to assume the form of a flame-clad avatar.
That, or drop upwards of ten thousand HDMs on outfits imported from European Enchantment-Workshops.
A rip-roaring clamour exploded across the observing audience, filling the courtyard with utterances of disbelief and shock. Gwen quickly doubled checked her person, ensuring that her Void-coverage had sufficiently preserved her modesty.
“She was a VOID Mage?!”
“The Song’s have a dual-quasi-Elementalist?”
“What the hell are the Lius doing?”
“I don’t think she’s wea-”
“Since when did Fudan have a Void-caster?!”
“Haven’t you heard? She enrolled six months ago-“
“That’s the one? Who'd have thought it was a Song?”
“They did say it was a gweilo girl…”
The audience didn't catch her Void Shield the first time?
It must be the Flashbang, Gwen realised. With the amount of power she had put into it, the whole courtyard would have been blinded; furthermore, she had immediately dispelled the Void Shield as the tenebrous membrane blocked LOS.
Regardless, she couldn't be happier that ‘Holy Shit - Void Mage’ trumped ‘Fuck yeah! Skinny sheila’.
By now, Gwen's Dragon-Fear had worn thin. While she took the liberty to attune to her squid-ink attire, her opponent took the same opportunity to meditate.
By her own account, it was time to fuck or walk; she was spell-clad and disrobed, her only recourse was to end the match.
Her opponent was a turtle-worm, and Lulan had already shown her the universal weakness of Water-Mages. If Richard couldn't pressurise the flow of his Water Shield enough to ward off Lulan’s sword-strikes, then she needn't worry that Sui could ward off her Caliban-strike.
She would have to play it by the ear.
“CALIBAN!” Gwen picked a point somewhere behind the Wall of Water. “Anything but Stag!”
Gwen knew better than to let Sui’s crushing manifestation mug her person. The Void-skin would absorb water like crazy and tank her vitality.
She expertly Dimension Doored out of the tendril’s range, sundering the brackish appendages with a burst of electricity.
Meanwhile, her Caliban sneak-attack became offset by a clamorous burst of horror from the audience, screeching at the sight of her Lovecraftian Familiar. Sui turned, took one look at the twisted fiend, suppressed a gag, then commanded a dozen tendrils to intercept the obsidian beast.
Among cries of ‘Void Beast!’ and ‘Mao!’, Sui’s Flatworm Spirit enveloped Caliban in a watery cocoon, lifting it from the floor and suspending it in mid-air. Gwen recognised the spell as ‘Watery Prison’, one of Richard’s favourite ways to abuse Lea’s affinity.
Caliban’s empathic link informed her that it wished to transform.
Caliban still had a portion of vitality remaining from its consumption of a dozen or so draconic-deer, giant carps, belligerent goats, and Merfolks. Unlike Gwen herself, its abilities did not require an excessive quantity of life-force, at least not yet.
“Use your reserves!” Gwen mentally urged her Familiar, praying that Caliban understood her meaning. During their poaching adventure, Caliban had grown gluttonous thanks to the abundance of biomass.
Caliban's carapace split.
It’s size ballooned.
The watery prison made by the flat-worm Spirit burst like a ripe sausage as Caliban leapt from the Water Prisons' embrace.
A fresh wave of antipathy visibly spread through the audience, the Force Barriers hindered the aura of vertigo, but it couldn’t shelter their eyes from the aberrant form of a serpentine carp-creature with two pink-purple tentacles for whiskers, possessing no face but for a two-feet-wide disk of teeth in the guise of a lamprey’s mouth.
Caliban-carp slithered through the water with as much ease as a carp could muster under the circumstances.
“Dreadful! HORRIBLE SIGHT!”
“I YIELD! I YIE-!”
The moment Caliban crashed into Sui’s Shield and its corrosive, void-tinged slime penetrated his water barrier, Sui knew it was all over. If he attempted to hold out, Mao knows what would have happened when that thing reached his person.
But surrendering was one thing.
Stopping Caliban was another.
Gwen's Familiar balled into the Water Mage with the force of an out of control, hydroplaning mini-van.
Half a second later, a Wall of Force went up, separating pedestrian and Caliban-Carp.
Sui struck the opposite wall before sliding into the floor like a sack of half empty potatoes.
The Wall of Water was first to dissipate.
Then the Water-Armour.
Then the Shield.
Were it not for the fact that the Water-Abjurer had three layers of protection, Gwen was sure Sui would now be lamenting the absent half of his upper body.
With the conjured water suddenly dissipating, Caliban fell to the floor.
After a resounding 'splat!' it began to writhe like a landed eel, splashing its grey-goo all over, sizzling the Force Barrer with its void-tinged slime.
“VICTOR - GWEN SONG!”
Magus Ly finally breathed.
I MADE IT; he congratulated himself.
The Magus had to circulate mana through his body a dozen times before he felt lucid enough to save the Xì boy. It was just as well that the girl hadn't intended to actually slaughter the Water Mage; just picturing the slippery lamprey suckering onto boy’s body was enough to send his stomach into revolt.
Gwen leapt from the platform before the crowd could recover.
As a distraction, she left Caliban gloating over the terrified young man.
Caliban began to sing.
The crowd went wild with cries of 'Mao!' and 'Disgusting!' 'That's not edible, is it?' and 'Why doesn't it have a face?'
“Petra! Mina! Peaches!”
Gwen had bigger fish to fry.
“I got you covered!”
"I CAN SEE YOUR-"
Petra materialised an oversized robe. Mina likewise had a towel ready to wrap around their cousin. Gwen slid out of her Void-Skin and straight into the awaiting attires before activating her next spell.
Petra kicked Tao aside.
“Nice save! Dimension Door!”
Gwen was gone in a burst of silvery Conjuration.
A scream came from the women’s bathroom.
The water closet wasn’t as unoccupied as Gwen had hoped.
A moment later, a terrified woman ran from the door, pants around her ankles.
As a private residence, the guest bathrooms did not possess cubicles.
“SORRY!” Gwen’s muffled voice was barely audible above the din.
Petra and Mina faced one another.
"Wow, that was a close shave."
"She barely made it."
"That's the naked truth."
The girls burst into sniggering laughter.
Tao nursed his buttocks.
Upon the elevated platform, Caliban de-materialised with a final 'Shaaa!'
* * *
Watching the girls falling about in their celebratory joviality, Guo tempered the cadence of his breathing.
When the worm-Spirit had almost taken his granddaughter, his heart had skipped a beat.
Though his silent outbreak of arrhythmia was nothing compared to his opponent's wild and buckling ride.
When Sui managed to ambush Gwen, Liu grinned.
When Gwen panicked, the Secretary chuckled, revealing his teeth.
When Caliban made its appearance, Liu half stood, then sat, groaning.
The man's amateurish display was beginning to grate on what little patience the Chair of the Confidential Communications Committee had left.
“A close match,” Guo stated mildly.
“Excuse me.” Liu rose from his seat.
“Take your time, Gwen's changing outfits.”
From his body language, Guo could see that the Secretary was ready to double down on his wager. The next match was likely going to be the last. The Lius had to demonstrate a show of force; else they would lose face and influence. A list of potential candidates scrolled through Guo's head. There were a few that worried him, but they were either too senior, or already deployed at the Front.
Klavdiya approached her husband as Patriarch Liu made for the east wing.
“Guo, perhaps this is enough. Gwen-”
“Gwen will be fine,” Guo replied with confidence. “The reputation and fame she has gained will contribute toward her IIUC selection. She has little to lose other than her pride, but we have staked much indeed.”
"I am worried."
"Worry not." Guo patted her hand. "You're here, aren't you? She'll be fine."
"We'll owe her so much, after tonight."
“That we do. Next year, assuming Gwen applies, I will call in a favour from the Central Education Committee. Magister Guang owes me for the Nantong incident back in 93'."
"I am glad to hear that, dear."
"Look, there's something else. Jun told me that he wanted Gwen to inherit his half of the amulet - if and when the time comes.”
“That’s…” Klavdiya searched the crowd for her absent sons. Not finding either of them, she turned back to her husband.
Guo rapped his knuckles on the wooden chair, warding off the portentous evil that had escaped his lips.
“I can give her anything, but not that. Jun is too close to the girl. Even knowing the dilemma, he chose her.”
Klavdiya thought of Jun's hasty Message right before he had Teleported away.
“Ah-Jun is too willful,” Gwen's babulya declared with a wounded voice. "I don't know if Gwen truly needs the Amulet, but if the time comes-"
“One can only hope Jun changes his mind, or that Gwen overcomes the need,” Guo interrupted Klavidya, ruminating on thoughts his wife could never genuinely know.
There were good reasons why Gwen could never inherit. Indeed, if a girl-heir should learn the secret-rites of utilising the Amulet, would she teach it to her daughter, her daughter's daughter? Would that daughter possess the last name Song? More importantly, what happens when a mother knew their child NEEDED the Songs' Necromantic secret to survive their bloodline talent?
What happens when more than two drought-cursed children possessed the means to use the Amulet, but only two halves could be shared? Which branch shall live, and which shall wither? Would a father or mother risk all to save their child, even if it meant the murdering of kith and kin?
Could Gwen watch Qīn and Hai's future child die in slow agony, drained by the negative energy engendering in their body? Perhaps she could, perhaps she could not. Only time would tell. Void, Lightning, draconic essence, egotism, pride and a desperate desire for validation; the internal forces driving the girl forward were powerful indeed.
For now, all Guo could do was petition the ancestors with an earnest wish.
"Please let Hai's child be mundane."
Or else - calamity would befall the House of Song.