“Wonsoo,” Secretary Liu called for his great-nephew.
“Grand-Uncle,” came a reply from the dim interior of a large bedchamber.
The low voice issued forth from a face with an unkempt beard covering the entirety of the speaker's mouth and chin. Likewise, although the man was in silk robes, the manner of 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 throb 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 safely inbreed for affinity. As such, they drew their talents from a pool of local aristocrats, many of whom were descended 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 power; a period when the Confucian-Gentry had held dominion over hundreds of millions of individuals, from the lowest farmer to the child-Emperor.
Theirs was a common enough narrative, dispossessed Gentry such as the Lius existed all through 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 had no need for the old Gentry, for the CCP elevated hundreds of thousands of Mages from NoM stock. What the new state desired was 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 new invaders. When the Mongol Demi-humans were wiped out by the Ming Emperor, 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 sectors of the government, sent their feelers into the CCP and the PLA, into the Universities, the tier 1 cities of Beijing and Shanghai, into 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 bowls of rice.
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 the limitations of 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 into riskier missions, Liu had requested that Wonsoo returned to Hangzhou to ‘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 was 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.
That and Guo was the kind who denied defeat until his casket was presented to him.
“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?"
"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 really 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."
“You laziness is legendary,” Liu chided his nephew. As a Mud Mage, slothfulness was par for the course. “Those girls are counting on you, a child with your talent would set them up for life, you know.”
“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 anyway, 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 his Clan's Patriarch, at once impressed and revolted with his grand-uncle's pragmatism. He deliberated whether a rebuke was in order, but averted the potential vexation. Already, instead of enjoying a week of R&R, he had been dragged into marriage meetings, made to repopulate the bloodline, attend a wedding, and now he had to beat down a teenager.
He should have just stayed on base.
But hopefully, it would all be finished soon. All Wonsoo had to do was strike the girl down, then he could go back to sleep. After Aunty Qīn's wedding, he would return to the Front.
Liu kept on talking.
Wonsoo closed his eyes and sipped the overnight tea, finding it bitter and oversaturated, he grimaced.
“Pay attention!” Liu slapped Wonsoo's knees. “I am counting on you, Wonsoo!”
* * *
Gwen emerged from the ladies’ room wearing her old skin-suit from her Singapore trip, overlaid with cargo-shorts and a white tee. For her next match, she wasn’t going to take the chance that Void Skin was off the menu and risk unnecessary exposure once again.
Murmurs of disappointment and disapproval issued forth 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 entire jungle-set was elementally attuned, though the build quality was strictly Frontier.
Her hair had been tied into a thick ponytail, double knotted to reduce its length as 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
Petra shook her head.
“Mina any ideas?”
Mina had never seen the man either; her social circle was in Shanghai.
Her opponent looked nothing like any of the clean-shaven young men she had met so far. The Chinese, particularly the Southerners, favoured sharp brows and intense eyes with clean-shaven faces.
As for the new guy, he appeared as though possessed by the spirit of the ‘Dude’ from The Big Lebowski, only with dark hair and an Asian face. In her eyes, the man appeared in his thirties. He had a stooped gesture and yawned as he walked, more than once he scratched his crotch with far more vigour than necessary. Everything about him seemed tired and devoid of life. Even the man’s hair lacked vitality, plastering to 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 go all out for this one. Wonsoo is an Abjurer and a Conjurer who uses Mud. It’s a terrible Elemental matchup for you. Don’t stay in one spot for too long, and DON’T let him ensnare you. Remain mobile at all times. All I can tell you is that his signature move is an Entrapment incantation, not unlike Watery Tomb, but virtually impossible to escape from. He doesn't have a Spirit, but his affinity is at least a 5.”
Gwen nodded at her grandfather 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 advise. “Try to end this as soon as possible. Don’t play around. I hear that Mud-Mages are weakest during the first few spell-exchanges.”
Mina had nothing to offer.
“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.”
That much was true, Gwen surmised the situation and found herself in agreement with Petra.
She was running tier 6 lightning.
She had a VMI of over 200.
And she had a trump card as well.
Two, in fact.
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.
If Gwen should be injured-
“OI! YOU!” Tao called out beside her. “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.
The adjudicator had a feeling that regardless of whether Gwen won or lost, he would be talking about this day for many years to come.
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 Shield.
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 ‘Guardians’ exploded, while the further one managed to escape with missing limbs.
“Dimension Door!” Gwen escaped the conic, AOE barrage.
She revved up an Elemental Sphere.
The viscous mud-mana disbursed by her magic began to collate.
Be it the mud from his Shield, from his Sleet-Storm, or from his summoned ‘guardians’, they all began to form into vaguely shaped humanoid elementals.
A shot of adrenaline straightened Gwen's spine.
So 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 singed and smoked, but ripples of fresh Elemental-Mud soon replaced the damaged exterior. As Wonsoo exchanged the volume-metric ratio of water and mud, it became translucent.
'Clap… clap… clap…'
“Not bad.” Wonsoo grinned, striking his palms in appreciation. "You're a greater prodigy then 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.
Wonsoo could evidently control the opacity of his 'mud' at will.
Caliban meanwhile, 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.”
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 an incantation 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 to the soft and wobbly Shield like a cockroach caught in a sticky trap. Her Familiar squirmed and screeched, crying out ‘Shaaa!’ as it attempted to free itself to no avail.
Three tier 1 spells disabled Caliban?!
Gwen felt her confidence falter.
The versatility of the Mud Mage was borderline ludicrous.
To think someone could defeat 'The 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, and even if she did, Caliban would be the one tanking her explosions. “Dimension Door!”
Wonsoo reached her within the span of 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.
Wonsoo watched his opponent reappear on the opposite side, obliterate a circumference of his mud, then land in the remnants he had planted earlier.
Gwen's error in judgement had been forced, but its occurrence suggested inexperience in competitive duelling. The girl's reactive tactics painted her as a monster-hunter, unused to catching Mages off-guard. Unlike Magical Creatures, a Mage-Duel was more akin to a game of Go; one had to plan three moves ahead, where no action was performed solely for the action alone.
Gwen resumed a defensive stance, warding off the globs with her Non-Newtonian Shield.
Her arc of lightning obliterated a few clumps of mud, 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 that 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 into? In the wild, she could get her Familiar to burrow downwards, but here they were surrounded by Force-Barriers.
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 whole 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.
Watching Gwen's livid face, the Mud-Mage rolled his eyes.
"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 to come.
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, target their defence spell, do whatever was necessary to find 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.”
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 in an attempt 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.
“She’s a monster!”
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, then 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 - in particular, the effects of the ‘Void Bolt’ - a dark lightning which 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 midst of 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, that it could be disrupted when an equal or greater force was applied.
She didn’t have the force, of course, but she could ‘disappear’ enough of the Shield for Caliban to pierce through. 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. Such was the result one could gain from a rapturous study of Spellcraft: to exploit the mechanical functions of her opponent’s spells!
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. It was when Xiao Huyi ambushed Petra and herself in the midst of the Hengsha Dungeon, where the young master had used some Clanner gobbledygook to send Caliban packing. As before, the sensation could only be described as having one’s brain slugged with a cricket bat, or waking up on Saturday after a 2 AM mixed-spirit bender.
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? There was plenty of mud strew all-over. He could have used that mud-golem incantation again.
A truce? Or a bluff?
Either way, she can't quit when she had a straight flush left to play.
“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 patronising 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 the midst of a vaguely-humanoid ooze.
Three chunks of the Mage’s liquid erupted, the resultant electricity grounded itself, ionising the barriers on the floor.
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 of the mud-men met, they formed into slightly larger variations that reminded Gwen of clay-golems.
Her vitality was holding up, but even so, Gwen had to use her health sparingly. The AOE Void-burst from her short-ranged Teleportation spell cleared the space in which she’d landed, affording Gwen a renewed appreciation for the Signature Spell her Master had left her.
Gwen summoned her second Familiar.
Fighting while partnered with her Familiars was now second nature to her, so much that the moment Caliban was Banished, she had 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 and turn before landing with a flourish, it now materialised 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 fishes’ 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, one that ate an Eland antelope’s core, a Draconic Stag’s core, and a Draconic-carp’s core. It 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 ‘Eeeeeing', 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…’”
“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.”
“Wait, does that mean-”
Liu turned to Guo with his mouth open, all composure thrown to the five winds.
The man was visibly trembling.
“ARE YOU ALL INSANE?” Liu blurted out. “YOUR SON WENT AND KILLED A KIRIN FOR YOUR GRANDDAUGHTER?!”