"Wonsoo," Secretary Liu called for his great-nephew.
"Grand-Uncle," came a reply from the dim interior of a large bed chamber.
The low voice issued forth from a face with an unkempt beard blanketing the speaker's mouth and chin. Likewise, although the man was in silk robes, his lounging on the divan and the bedraggled state of his undress suggested an undutiful slovenliness.
Sectary Liu illuminated the room.
To his displeasure, the once pristine studio was now a mess of discarded clothing. Feeling a throbbing in his temples, the Secretary regarded his nephew.
Wonsoo Liu was a born prodigy, the product of purposeful lineage. Unlike the Clans, the Su-Hang Houses did not possess the bloodline diversity to preserve Elemental Affinity safely. As such, they drew their talents from a pool of local aristocrats, with many descending from the dynastic Houses banished to the Frontier by the CCP after the Cultural Revolution. They had been scholar-bureaucrats in the age before the Communists reforged the social strata of China, possessing enormous ambitions for returning to a period when the Confucian Gentry held dominion over the lowest farmer to the child Emperor.
Today, theirs was a common enough narrative. Dispossessed gentry, such as the Lius, existed throughout China and its territories. For the scholar-bureaucrats, the European Spellcraft Revolution was a disaster of existential proportions. Within two decades, their monopoly on the pedagogy of magic, the source of their influence and the ladder that elevated them above the masses, had been pulled out from under them.
First came the peasant rebellions.
Then came the Communist Revolution.
After that, the threat of the Undead.
Then a new status quo descended.
New China did not need the old gentry, for the CCP elevated hundreds of thousands of Mages from NoM stock. The new state desired quantity to fill its administrative, manufacturing, territorial, and military ambitions—not prodigies.
But that didn't stop the scholar-gentry, who had mastered patience, subservience, and subversion for two millennia. When the Song Dynasty fell, they went on to serve the Horse Lords. When the Ming Emperor wiped out the Mongol Demi-humans, the gentry immediately prostrated before the new world order. When the Manchurian Tribesmen took the heavenly throne from the decrepit bloodline of the Mings, they ingratiated themselves into the new dynastic government. With the CCP, it would be no different. What the scholar-gentry possessed was knowledge to rule, to keep the proletariat dumb and pliable, and to ingratiate themselves as the bureaucratic sword arm of those sitting on society's apex.
In time, they forged alliances, controlled government sectors, and sent their feelers into the CCP and the PLA, into the Universities, the manufactoriums and the military tribunals.
That and the Gentry refined their Spellcraft and bloodlines.
Wonsoo was the product of that particular ambition.
A Para-elemental Mud-Mage.
A rare existence among rare existences.
A Conjurer and Abjurer, trained from birth by the best instructors, fed more precious Wildland floral and fauna than most NoMs have eaten rice bowls.
At only twenty-seven, Wonsoo had already made a name for himself on the Northern Front. A young man whose future was immeasurable and restrained only by time. It was with serendipity that the young man was even in Hangzhou. After a Purge mission had gone awry, he had been given time for rest and relaxation. Paranoid that the PLA would send his nephew toward riskier missions, Liu requested that Wonsoo "sow his wild oats" before setting off again.
Had the Song girl been pliable and obedient, Liu would have entertained the notion of setting up the two for what could potentially be an incredibly potent union. If the girl could give birth to three or four children, there were bound to be quasi or para-elemental talents among that number.
But Guo had refused his best efforts at an inter-house alliance, and now Liu must demonstrate to the old dog that the millennia-old gentry of Jiangnan wasn't just for show.
It was almost sickening how talented the man's gweilo granddaughter was, especially considering the common stock from which she emerged. The Songs were an old House, but they weren't scholars nor bureaucrats. In Liu's esteemed opinion, the House of Song, originating from Hubei, was akin to peasants.
Peasants elevated by the Communists. The very thought was an insult.
"You have been watching the match, yes?"
"What do you think of the girl?"
"A bother," Wonsoo confessed readily. "That Familiar of hers is bad news. Mao knows what other forms it can shift into."
"Can you do it, though?"
Wonsoo grunted. "Grand-Uncle, I don't mean to be forward - but I am a Lieutenant in the PLA's Elite Northern 11th Battalion—and I'll be promoted to Captain by the end of the year. Do you think I should be duelling girls too young for me to date?"
Liu's jaws stiffened.
"Why, you want to date the girl?"
"Don't be ridiculous."
"She's a lovely thing."
"I've sent you a few promising candidates, didn't I? Where are the girls?"
"Sent them home." Wonsoo shrugged his shoulders. "I did my duty if you must know. Now I am trying to get some sleep. Between that and the wedding, I've had a busy week."
"Your laziness is legendary," Liu chided his nephew. As a Mud Mage, slothfulness was parred for the course. "Those girls are counting on you. A child with your talent would set them up for life."
"Being a father is a bother as well..." Wonsoo lamented.
Liu hid his growing irritation.
"I am out of options here, Ah-Won. Tell me one thing, can you beat the girl or not?" he asked the only question that mattered. "For the House, for Jiangnan, I need the Songs under my thumb."
"Yes." Wonsoo yawned.
"Good. Also, use this for the Familiar." Liu passed Wonsoo a spell scroll.
"A tier 7 Banishment—it'll deal with her Familiar."
"I don't need it." Wonsoo pushed the scroll aside. "Too much bother."
"You will." Liu threw the scroll at his nephew's chest. "Activate it before the match. It's got a trigger algorithm built in. You're an Abjurer. No one would notice."
Wonsoo took a deep breath before exhaling deliberately.
"Whatever you say, Grand-Uncle."
"The girl can be yours; if you prevail. I can make it happen," Liu promised.
Wonsoo regarded the Clan's Patriarch. "Uncle, as a military man, I am both revolted and impressed by your pragmatism. I must also remind you that you dragged me to marriage meetings before this. Now, you want me to beat down a lovely girl and humiliate her. These reasons are not why I am here."
"Finish this, and you can return to your beloved base." Liu declared.
His nephew appeared to be dozing off.
"Pay attention!" Liu slapped Wonsoo's knees. "I am counting on you, Ah-Won!"
Gwen emerged from the ladies' room wearing her old skin suit from her Singapore trip, overlaid with cargo shorts and a tee. For her next match, she wasn't going to take the chance that Void Skin was off the menu and risk unnecessary exposure again.
Murmurs of disappointment and disapproval rose from the crowd when she returned fully clad from neck to toe.
Gwen resisted the urge to give the wedding guests the bird.
"Okay, I am ready to rock." She stretched out her hammies and calves, flexing the stiff leather of her combat boots. Her jungle set was elementally attuned, though the build quality was strictly Frontier.
Her hair had been tied into a thick ponytail, double knotted to avoid whipping her own eyes should the combat require acrobatic manoeuvres.
From across the courtyard, Liu returned with his next combatant.
"That's a 'young' Mage, is it?" Gwen looked over at Petra
"He looks old, not from our generation." Petra shook her head.
"Mina, any ideas?"
Mina had never seen the man.
Her opponent looked nothing like the clean-shaven young men she had met. The Chinese, particularly the Southerners, favoured sharp brows and intense eyes with clean-shaven faces.
The new guy appeared as though possessed by the spirit of "The Dude" from The Big Lebowski, only with dark hair and an Asian face. He had a stooped gesture and yawned as he walked. Everything about him seemed tired and devoid of life. Even the man's hair lacked vitality, plastering his face in oily, disorderly locks.
Was she going to fight a hobo now?
The Secretary conversed with Magus Ly, who glanced up at the 'young man' with an expression of surprise.
"Our NEXT and FINAL challenger!" Ly returned to the arena before announcing the next duel. "From the House of Liu, Magus Wonsoo Liu."
"Gwen." A Message spell from Guo blossomed beside her ear. "You'll need to use every trick for this one. Wonsoo is an Abjurer and a Conjurer who uses mud. It's a terrible Elemental matchup for you. Please don't stay in one spot for too long, and DON'T let him trap you. Remain mobile at all times. All I can tell you is that his signature move is entrapment magic, not unlike Watery Tomb, but virtually impossible to escape. He doesn't have a Spirit, but his Affinity is at least a 5."
Gwen nodded in her grandfather's direction before turning her attention toward this unassuming opponent.
As Wonsoo wandered into the arena, the crowd began to protest.
"How is this a fair fight?"
"Wonsoo's a Captain now, isn't he?"
"No, he's still a lieutenant."
"Didn't Wonsoo go to the Northern Front?"
"Still, for him to be back now, the Patriarch sure put some thought into this."
Petra took Gwen by the arm.
"Mud is a bad matchup for you," Petra affirmed Guo's advice. "However, Mud-Mages are weakest during the first few spell exchanges. The longer you fight, the worse it will be."
"I can intimidate dat bitch if yo like," Tao proposed, scratching his head. "If he is a good Abjurer, U gonna be in for a long grind, Gwen."
"I concur. You should alpha-strike," Petra insisted. "Don't stop until you're spell-fatigued or OOM, or both. That's how I would do it. If the guy's capable of continuing after that—forfeit."
Gwen surmised the situation and found herself in agreement with her family.
She was running tier 6 lightning.
She had a VMI of over 200.
And she had a trump card as well.
Two of them.
Caliban's Horror Stag form.
And Ariel's Barbanginy, which she dared not use for two reasons: one, she would like to save it for a life or death situation like Golos, and two, she had no idea what Barbanginy plus tier 6 affinity would do. Could Ariel even control something at that level of power? What if her AOE shattered the portable Force Barriers and maimed the wedding guests?
Hopefully, it wouldn't come to that.
"Alright, wish me luck!"
"You won't need it!" Mina called out with confidence.
Petra thumbed her Storage Ring and took account of her spells.
"I've got healing spells from Babulya!"
"OI! YOU!" Tao called out not to Gwen but to her opponent. "DICK-SOO! YOU KNOW WHO MY DAD IS?! LET ME TELL YOU MANG, YOU- OW!! Damn it, Mina! I am shit-talking here!"
"ZIP IT, Peaches! Gwen will be fine."
For the fourth time, Gwen stepped into the duelling box.
His opponents stood a little shorter than she did. His stance, however, suggested he was completely relaxed. If anything, the man reminded Gwen of someone browsing the university's canteen menu.
"Look, no hard feelings." Wonsoo caught Gwen's attention with a wave of his hand. "You're young; life will have lots of other opportunities."
"I'll be the judge of that," Gwen riposted tartly. "Do your worst."
"I always do my worst." The man appeared amused by her enthusiasm. "Let me guess; you're the valedictorian who always does her best?"
Gwen's temple throbbed.
It would appear that she and Wonsoo were indeed poorly matched.
Magus Ly wasted no time in getting the show on the road.
Gwen decided to take Petra's advice to heart.
She would close in with an AOE, then dance around her opponent.
An offensive barrage from start to finish.
"Shield!" The Mud-Mage's reaction, unlike his languished mannerism, was instantaneous.
Gwen appeared beside the Abjurer, triggering a burst of tenebrous ink.
Her Void matter splashed onto the Mud-Mage's barrier, though her consumptive motes of mana corroded no more than an inch of Wonsoo's considerably impervious semi-dome surface.
To her surprise, the impact failed to penetrate the weakened barrier.
Wonsoo, too, appeared to be surprised by Gwen's offensive potential.
Two semi-opaque chunks of mana broke off from his enormous, fractured shielding.
Gwen didn't need Divination to know she had underestimated the Mud-Mage's defence.
She reappeared to the man's right, about five meters away. Her lightning burst caught one of the golem-things as it emerged.
A line of arm-thick lightning surged across all three targets, with Wonsoo caught in the middle. The foremost Guardian exploded, while the further one escaped with missing limbs.
"Dimension Door!" Gwen escaped the conic, AOE barrage.
She revved up an Elemental Sphere.
"Marching Mud!" The viscous mud mana disbursed by her magic began to collate. Be it the mud from his Shield, his Sleet-Storm, or his summoned "Guardians", they all began to form into vaguely shaped humanoid elementals.
A shot of adrenaline straightened Gwen's spine.
SHIT. To think her opponent combined the resilience of an Earthen Mage with the regenerative versatility of a Water Mage.
With tier 6 affinity, her imploding-then-exploding sphere encompassed the entirety of the second half of the duelling area.
Before the secondary explosion began, Gwen summoned her nether-worm to her side.
As her serpent materialised, her spell reached its second stage—a radial burst in the form of an electric nova.
The resulting energy was enough to destroy most of the 'Terracotta Soldiers', though Wonsoo's 'mud' had now spread everywhere, plastering every surface.
Gwen felt the engendering of a terrible premonition.
The man's Mud Shield smoked with tears and rips, but ripples of fresh elemental mud instantly replaced the damaged exterior. Furthermore, when Wonsoo exchanged the volume-metric ratio of water and dirt, it became translucent.
"Not bad." Wonsoo grinned, striking his palms in appreciation. "You're a greater prodigy than I, that's for sure."
Was the man mocking her?
"You're not too shabby yourself," Gwen retorted. "CALIBAN!"
Caliban sped toward the Mud Mage as though launched from a catapult, transforming halfway into its spider form. Gwen figured that since the man's shield was unusually resilient, Caliban would perform best if it harassed the guy while she loaded up on buffs and turret spells to up her damage per spell exchange.
More conjured balls of semi-translucent slime flew her way.
Weary of what had occurred with the Water Mage, Gwen immediately erected her semi-dome shield.
The mud splattered all over, obscuring her line of sight.
Meanwhile, Caliban raked the Mud Mage's Shield with a flurry of sword strikes from its forelimbs.
"Mao, what a fantastic beastie." Wonsoo whistled. "Almost like a Shambling Horror crossed with an Arachne."
"Call Lightning!" Gwen, meanwhile, loaded up on persistent Conjuration attack spells.
For all his resilience, the Mud Mage appeared to cast one or two spells every time she managed three or four. If so, the man must be used to opponents going OOM long before penetrating his defences.
Hoping to test Wonsoo's limits, she began a chant for Ball Lightning, simultaneously giving Caliban a mental order to play interference until her incantation finished.
The Mud-Mage took a step backwards.
Was he bracing for impact? Gwen pondered.
To her surprise, Wonsoo utilised a low-tier Transmutation spell.
The man launched into the air like a human cannonball, catching Caliban by surprise as he balled into her creature, Mud-Shield and all.
Gwen almost lost her spell when Caliban slammed into the soft and wobbly shield like a cockroach caught in a sticky trap. Her Familiar squirmed and screeched, crying out "Shaa!" as it attempted to free itself.
Did he only use three first-tier spells disabled Caliban?!
Gwen felt her confidence falter.
The versatility of the Mud Mage was ludicrous.
To think someone could defeat Her Thing by using a human-sized cockroach trap. John Carpenter would be spewing.
Gwen was four incantations from finishing her Ball Lighting when Wonsoo turned his attention toward her.
The Mud Mage charged her, using Caliban's stuck body as a battering ram.
"YOU'RE SHITTING ME!" Gwen swore. She had no time to finish the spell; even if she did, Caliban would be the one tanking her explosions. "Dimension Door!"
With another "Jump", Wonsoo reached her within a second or so. Confined within the arena, Gwen was incapable of using the 100-meter-plus range she had exploited in her fight with Golos.
Her fiendish Familiar turned back into its serpentine form, secreting grey goo all over its obsidian carapace to free itself from the adhesive shield.
She was slipping up. Gwen knew this and yet had little recourse. Her reactive tactics painted her as a monster hunter, while her reactions are unused to catching Mages off-guard. Unlike Magical Creatures, a Mage-Duel was akin to a game of Go; one had to plan three moves, where no action was performed solely for the act alone.
Gwen resumed a defensive stance, warding off the globs with her non-newtonian shield.
Her lightning arc obliterated a few mud clumps, though the rest splattered over her shield.
What remained of the sticky mud Gwen had teleported into suddenly grew liquid and slime-like, glueing her feet to the floor.
Gwen fumed she had to use such a dangerously double-edged spell so soon. The sticky slime fell away, sizzling as her vitality-draining body armour absorbed the offensive substance. Her t-shirt and shorts disappeared, but at least she had her skin suit.
Caliban harassed Wonsoo with a few tentacles, punching small holes in the man's semi-liquid shield even as they self-replenished.
But the momentary gap created by Caliban gave Gwen an idea.
Do Mud-Shields have a convenient crack through which Caliban could slither? She could get her Familiar to burrow downwards in the wild, but they were surrounded by Force-Barriers while in the arena.
Furthermore, from what she could discern, the man had restrained himself to low-tier spells while she had been nuking the guy with tier 3 Lightning Bolts and above. Perhaps the man was trying to disgrace her as she had the Fire and Air Mage, but if they kept going like this, even with her massive mana pool, she would be OOM before long.
Gwen's Warding Bolt, Call Storm, and Lightning Bolt barraged Wonsoo's Shield again, turning a portion of it opaque before the Mud Mage allowed it to fall from his barrier. The process reminded Gwen of reactive tank armour, only these grew back.
"Ready to give up?" the man called out from across the room. "There's no shame in it. We're not well-matched, and I've got almost a decade on you. Don't push yourself too hard! Old men talk and drink their tea while young folks like us are given the butcher cleaver to carve each other up."
Another chunk of shielding fell away from Wonsoo's shield. Gwen felt her frustration buzzing like a hive of angry bees.
"Almost forgot about that... you high-affinity Lightning Mages, always tripping up on your ego." Wonsoo sighed. "Barrage!"
More mud built up around Gwen's Shield, hinting at more dire circumstances.
Wonsoo's accurate assessment of her mood pissed her off.
She suspected the hobo-looking prick was trying to undermine her determination. If so, all Wonsoo had achieved was piling fuel on her bushfire.
It was time to up the ante.
She recalled what Alesia had once told her: if your opponent's defence appeared impervious, change gears. She could target the environment, their defence spell, and do whatever was necessary to expose a chink in the armour. An opportunity always presented itself, for no such thing as a perfect defence existed, only insufficiently applied offence. As an anecdote, her Sister-in-craft professed to never Fireball a Mermen Water Priest when collapsing the building on top of them would do just fine.
As for her immediate dilemma...
Her Warding Bolt and Call Storm fired every other interval, tinging her mana channels before they activated. The man's shield was reactive, meaning there was a play she could make if she were willing to put herself at risk.
"Caliban," Gwen mentally commanded her Familiar. "Slip in when you get the chance."
CRACK—BOOM— Her Conjuration spells fired their payload.
Wonsoo was building the density of Mud-mana around her, readying a finisher. According to her grandfather, it was likely an entombment-style AOE.
Gwen timed her assault for the split-second the Mud Mage was distracted by her bolts.
Her vitality dropped like a stone.
A blob of tenebrous darkness appeared just behind the semi-opaque mud clumps, forming a phenomenon akin to a micro-blackhole against Wonsoo's Shield.
Having expected another Lightning blast, Wonsoo's eyes narrowed just before the dark dot imploded, rapidly expanding into an all-consuming ball of jet-black, swirling ink.
Caliban leapt into the void created by the exploding sphere.
The secondary explosion triggered. A Void-nova rang out, a dark disk splashing against the sides of the Force Barrier.
As one, the audience retreated.
The wedding guests fell atop one another to find some cover. Overwhelmed and overcome by a sudden sensation of vertigo. The Force-Barriers held, but the visual impact of the attack amplified its metaphysical stimuli.
Secretary Liu shot up from his chair.
"Guo! You! Y-You've been keeping something of this magnitude from the PLA?"
Guo sipped his cold tea, frowned, and motioned for a servant to refill it. The pale-faced servant obliged with a trembling hand.
Liu recalled a vid-cast attached to the report he had received—particularly the effects of the Void Mana—a dark lightning that consumed rather than electrified the target. But the Fung's intelligence had mentioned nothing of the fact that VOID could be used with Signature Spells such as Elemental sphere, nor how absurdly devastating the attack could be.
Liu's back became drenched with cold sweat. Nothing better happen to Wonsoo, or else there will be blood.
Elevated on the stage, the tenebrous burst of ink faded.
The audience slowly came to their senses.
A clay semi-dome Shield remained in the duelling arena.
Wonsoo Liu was presumably inside, safe from the Void-empowered Elemental Sphere.
"Where's the Familiar?" a spectator's voice broke through the silence. "The Void-Beast, I mean."
A hundred pairs of horrified eyes converged on the muddy dome.
SUCCESS! Gwen mentally punched the air as Caliban slipped between the gap that was created. As she had suspected, the self-replenishing mud-Shield had the same problem as Richard's Shield of Water: it could be disrupted when an equal or greater force was applied.
Of course, she didn't have the force, but she could 'disappear' enough of the Shield for Caliban to pierce. Cloaked with its Void-tinged goo and filled with Void-matter, Caliban should be impervious to the Void-blast generated by her spell.
As the orb erupted, she could sense Caliban striking the raw mana below the elemental ooze, she had held her breath, anticipating failure—then confirmation arrived from her Mongolian Deathworm.
"Do it now!" Gwen willed Caliban to intimidate the Mud-Mage, maybe take a nip out of the man if he refused to yield, though her Familiar should take care that its blow wasn't fatal.
Caliban landed with a plop, faced its opponent—then shifted into its centipede form.
Gotcha! Gwen couldn't help but grin smugly, happy that her spontaneous plan superseded her expectations.
Then she stumbled.
There was no warning from her Divination Sigil.
Whatever happened, it wasn't targeted at her.
From standing tall, she was suddenly freefalling.
It took Gwen a split second to catch herself, dropping to one knee as the feedback of losing her Familiar washed over her.
Caliban was gone—banished by a counterspell, back into its pocket dimension, incapable of re-materialising anywhere between an hour to a day, depending on the tier of the expulsion.
A forced 'unsummon' had only happened once before in all the time Gwen had fought other Mages. When Xiao Huyi ambushed Petra and herself in the Hengsha Dungeon, the young Master had used some Clanner gobbledygook to send Caliban packing.
The jubilation of victory bled from Gwen's systems as though Wonsoo had opened a vein.
The crowd began to clamour in confusion as she spat out a mouthful of Maotai-infused bile.
Thankfully, the expulsion cleared her head.
The Mud Shield collapsed.
A guilty-looking Wonsoo stood in front of her.
"Sorry." The Mud-Magus' chest rose and fell. "That caught me by surprise."
Gwen picked herself from the floor, her bosoms likewise heaving.
"So, call it a tie?" The man scratched his head. "You can't win, and I'd feel guilty if I won now."
Was he taunting her? Gwen wondered if the man was as thick as molasses. Why hadn't Wonsoo taken the opportunity of her disorientation to floor her? Was it to keep her on the back foot?
A truce? Or a bluff?
Either way, she couldn't quit with a straight flush in her left hand.
"We continue," Gwen declared.
Wonsoo scowled, clearly irritated. He looked around the arena, saw the lead-coloured face of his Patriarch, then turned back toward the teenage girl standing thirty feet away.
"You're not making this easy on yourself." The man's voice took on a tone of condescending criticism.
"Well, tough luck. Life is hard," Gwen riposted with a catty twang.
The Mud Mage snorted.
"Very well, ladies first—that's how you Westerns do it, right?"
Gwen took no heed of the Magus' mockery.
She had another familiar and another means of breaking through the man's barrier.
The Mud Mage became encased in semi-opaque globs of mana that flowed around his body, levitating him into the air. From her point of view, it seemed as though the man had become suspended in a vaguely-humanoid ooze.
Three chunks of the Mage's liquid erupted, and the resultant electricity grounded itself, ionising the barriers on the floor.
The man finished his invocation.
"March of the Terracotta!"
By now, the room had been thoroughly splattered by the translucent mud. To Gwen's dismay, the clumps of the stuff which had formed here and there now transformed into little mud-men. The impromptu army then sprang from the floor and began to converge on her position. When two or more mud-men met, they formed into slightly larger variations that reminded Gwen of claymation.
Her vitality was holding up, but Gwen had to use her health sparingly. The AOE Void-burst from her short-ranged Teleportation spell cleared the space she'd landed, affording Gwen a renewed appreciation for the Signature Spell her Master had left her.
"EE—ee!" Gwen summoned her second Familiar.
Fighting while partnered with her Familiars was now second nature to her, so much so that the moment Caliban was Banished, she felt incomplete, frustrated, and furious.
It was as though she was made to fight with an arm tied behind her back.
A meter above her head, Ariel materialised, though not in the way that she'd expected. Where the marten usually performed a twist before landing with a flourish, it emerged directly in mid-air.
A strange hush fell over her audience, including the Mud Mage.
Her familiar haughtily surveyed its surroundings, whipping its bushy, fan-like tail.
Upon its head were two elongated stag horns, branching out before spiralling into sharp tips.
Its mongoose face had elongated, taking on a strange hybrid appearance that was neither mammalian nor Draconic but something in-between. Two tendril feelers struck out from where its whiskers used to be in the guise of a carp or a catfish, and Ariel's new pale-blue fur shimmered with a strange pattern that resembled fish scales. Around its neck grew its old pure-white marten coat, giving it a faux mane.
Most importantly, its front paws were two maned hooves, while its back legs were predatory claws from its original body.
"Is that a Kirin?" a voice in the crowd whispered audibly.
A murmur radiated through the crowd.
"Horn of a stag, the scale of carp, the beard of a catfish, hooves and a fish's tail with a lion's mane."
"Well, if it looks like a Kirin, sounds like—"
"EEEE! EEEee!" Ariel turned its handsome, whiskered jowl toward Gwen, demanding validation.
Its Master was enraptured with equal surprise and suspense.
Gwen knew Ariel wasn't a Kirin.
She would bloody well know if her marten was a Kirin,
It was a Lightning-Mongoose that ate an Eland antelope's core, a Draconic Stag's core, and a Draconic carp's core. Ariel had taken on some faux-Kirin traits, sure, but they were superficial, possessing no ability. A true Kirin, according to her research, could Command Weather, Plane-Shift, Shape-Shift, use Telepathy and Illusion at will, and speak. Her marten-creature was restricted to "EE-ee", face nuzzling, and shooting lightning.
"Hear that cry?" a voice ratified the crowd's presupposition with complete incompetence. "A true Kirin neighs like a horse, this is a young Kirin, so it goes 'Eeeee…'"
Gwen felt like she should thank the bullshitter personally.
"Leader's ghost, that's amazing."
"Holy shit, the girl killed a Kirin and absorbed its Core?"
"Maybe she found a young one?"
"Maybe she's a Mythic Whisperer?"
"Most people would be dead."
"They eat human flesh, you know, like Dragons."
"An adult Kirin could obliterate Hangzhou by itself."
Liu turned to Guo with his mouth open, all composure thrown to the five winds.
The Regional Administrator was visibly trembling.
"ARE YOU ALL INSANE?" her grandfather's foe blurted out. "YOUR SON WENT AND KILLED A KIRIN FOR YOUR GRANDDAUGHTER?!"