Gwen watched as her opponent put up his hands, motioning for her to look instead to her elders. Equally weary and wary, Gwen instructed Ariel to keep an eye on her opponent while she turned to Guo and Liu.
"Eeee!" Ariel flittered through the air, swishing its tail and twirling its prehensile whiskers. Pointing its buttocks toward Wonsoo, it swished its tail tauntingly.
Gwen reached out with a hand to stroke the creature's mane, simultaneously materialising a block of raw HDM crystal.
Ariel took the opportunity to fly around its master in a figure-eight, tickling her face. When it passed her outstretched hand, it nipped the crystal gingerly from her fingers and crushed the mana-rich material in its jaws, using the second whisker as a grasping tentacle.
Below, the audience watched, mesmerised.
* * *
Besides the livid Secretary Liu, Gwen's grandfather had taken on a contemplative expression.
The appearance of the 'Kirin' had caught him flat-footed as well.
The corner of the ageing Chairman's eyes creased as he divided his attention between Gwen and the Familiar, his irises glowing subtly with Divination, unsure of what to make of their present circumstance.
The Kirin was a mythical creature tied to the Song's history. The Amulet which his sons shared was said to be crafted from the Core of one such being their ancestor had slain. The Analects of Song Rou had stated that as a result of their progenitor's transgression against the heavens, their family bloodline had been cursed with drought - resulting in male heirs awakening with Salt or Ash, elements that would render them infertile. However, after many years of cultivation, the Progenitor uncovered a way to circumvent the affliction through utilising the Core of the very creature that had cursed his progeny. Consequently, the line survived, growing weaker, but persisting nonetheless, until the family left Hubei and joined the Cultural Revolution.
But that didn't explain to Guo why Gwen had a Kirin with her.
He recalled Jun's debrief; his younger son had informed him that Gwen had bested a Thunder Wyvern in single combat. That knowledge had been the source of Guo's confidence. Not having anticipated Wonsoo, he doubted the Lius had a candidate who could measure up to an elementally-impervious, draconic wyvern capable of obliterating the outer city of Hangzhou by itself.
Jun likewise had not mentioned a Kirin.
Assuming uncle and niece had encountered a Kirin, why would they monopolise the knowledge? For one, Guo knew better than anyone that Jun's reputation preceded his ability, that much of his son's legendary competence was attributed to wide-spread propaganda. Jun, much to his regret, was no Gunther Shultz, and there was no way that a Lightning Mage and an Ash Magus could even begin to harm a Kirin without supporting magic from a Tower.
Was it Gwen then?
Did the girl possess yet more untapped potential?
Had his granddaughter's association with Henry Kilroy given her yet more secrets to be unearthed?
If the reports were accurate, Kilroy could have hunted down a Kirin.
The man had done no less during the Saurian Sea War and on the Eastern European Front, aided by his Void-Sorceress wife and his Dryad Familiar.
Kilroy and Sobel.
Gwen and Kilroy.
At any rate, it was improbable for Huangshan to house both a Kirin and a Yinglong.
By nature, Dragons are highly territorial and usually hated those of their kind with a passion. There was only one exception to the rule - when one of their 'kin' fell to lesser beings. Retribution was the only banner under which Dragonic-kindred banded together, forming cabals capable of erasing even tier 1 cities.
What if it was a young spirit they subsumed? Perhaps Gwen had stolen an egg, and somehow Jun managed to hatch it during their Huangshan trip.
Guo found his second hypothesis equally unrealistic.
He had begun entertaining a third when Liu's incessant squawking grew to such a pitch that it derailed his train of thought.
“GUO! You’re a fool! You hear me?! Your sons are nothing but troublemakers! I can’t… I can’t believe… Mao! My poor Qin-Qīn, what have you done to my precious child?"
In Liu’s mind, there was no doubt what had transpired.
The mournful Secretary regretted inviting the Songs into his house. He regretted letting his daughter near that playboy Hai. He regretted more than anything, signing his name on the Pass which allowed Jun and Gwen to access the Anhui province. When Internal Security came looking for heads to chop, his would be penned in red next to the Songs.
Dragons were quick to avenge their kin. Most importantly, as mythic beasts of air and positive energy, they controlled the weather at will. What if the Yinglong issued an edict that it would banish all rain from the region?
Would the PLA capitulate?
Give up Jun and Gwen Song?
Or would the PLA follow the Militant Faction’s doctrine of no mercy, no negotiation, and directly assault the Yellow Mountain?
What ghastly enterprise had driven Liu to fall so low as to think of allying with the peasant House of Song? What cursed coincidence had tempted him? Now the Lius and the Songs were mutually doomed! No Faction mattered when their immediate future involved being mind-read, mind-wiped, then offered to the Yinglong with less ceremony than a suckling-pig on Chinese New Year.
“Guo! Say something!” Liu wondered if Guo would be more reactive and forthcoming if he grabbed the old man by the collars and rattled the answer from him like a pepper shaker.
Abruptly, Guo rose from his seat.
“Guo-” Klavidya's Silent Message bloomed beside her husband's ear. “This has to be a mistake. Gwen knows better! Jun knows better! Her Familiar is a mongoose! Look! You can still see part of its original form!”
“I am aware of that.” Guo gave his wife a reticent expression fraught with cautious confidence.
He had suspected that Gwen might bring a calamitous destiny to the house, though he couldn't have imagined it happening so soon.
Not to mention his wife was right. Jun was too wise to make a mistake of this magnitude. Whatever this was, it originated from Gwen - which meant he could divert their present predicament to Gunther Shultz, or perhaps the late Henry Kilroy.
As for Gwen's 'Kirin', Guo felt that a play could be made. Either Ariel was a Kirin whose existence had nothing to do with Jun - or Ariel wasn’t a Kirin, and this was all a big misunderstanding.
But first, it wouldn't hurt to receive a confirmation.
Guo sent a Silent Message directly to his granddaughter.
"Don't move, and don't look around. Tell me one thing, is Ariel a Kirin?"
"No! HELL NO! Ariel just ate some bad Cores, that's all! It-"
"It's fine. I believe you."
"You do?! Tell them that I-"
A mistake then.
Guo suppressed a smirk.
An error that he could use to his advantage.
The wizened old hound of the CCP turned to his counterpart, catching the stench of the man's fear like a Stinking Cloud to his dog-nose.
“Secretary Liu. Do you forfeit the match?”
"If you do, I shall assume all responsibility for the Kirin."
Liu stared at his counterpart, gobsmacked by Guo's declaration.
“Guo.” The Secretary was caught between resentment and a desperate desire for exoneration. “Have you lost your mind?”
Gwen's grandfather looked toward the stage.
“You heard Gwen when all of this started, no?” Guo’s face was blank as a piece of paper, an expression which exacerbated his mockery. "It's over, Liu. It was all over the moment Gwen stepped onto that platform. We can still finish the banquet amiably; do you wish for bad blood that fervently? Are our children not lovers? What would they think?”
Liu's tongue caught in his throat dangerously.
A cascade of doubt washed over the Secretary.
Should he give up?
Cut his losses?
The two families would need to work together, pool their connections if they wished to survive this.
A Message spell blossomed beside Liu's ear.
"Wonsoo?" Patriarch Liu had not expected his grand-nephew to Message him now of all times. "Look, I didn't know-"
"It's not a Kirin," Wonsoo's voice came across from the duelling area. "This thing's a paper tiger; it just LOOKS like a Kirin. And another thing, the girl most definitely got blooded on Huangshan, the reasons we're all thinking her Familiar is a Kirin is because it's exuding Dragon-Fear! That thing's been fed on draconic flesh!"
At the mention of the idiomatic origami tiger, Liu's face ignited.
In a fury, the Secretary turned to Guo, his complexion now the scarlet passion of raw pork liver.
"WE CONTINUE! THE MATCH WILL CONTINUE!" Liu ejaculated with a petulant vehemence, sending out a spray of spittle.
Gwen's grandfather dabbed at a spot of spit with a finger, unmoved by Liu's sudden passion.
Liu tapped into the still-open Message.
"HURT HER! Crush the girl! I want the Songs to regret everything! Listen to me, Wonsoo! Do your WORST!"
* * *
Gwen watched as Wonsoo grumbled under his breath, then looked toward the ceiling with an expression that read 'why did I do that?'.
"What's wrong with you?" She sized him up with her eyes.
"Nothing," Wonsoo lamented. He stretched both of his arms, then shook loose his fingers. "Fair warning, this time, I won't be holding back."
“The feeling is mutual.” Gwen stood with her off-hand resting on her hips. Her other hand was stroking Ariel, purring and swimming here and there with adorable swishes of its tail.
“The MATCH WILL CONTINUE!”
Magus Ly resumed his position atop the cage.
Wonsoo cracked his neck.
"Last offer - we tie, what do you say?"
"Song meimei." The man groaned. "Are you always this difficult?"
"Try me, Big-Brother-Liu."
Wonsoo regarded her to see if she was serious. When he saw that her serious demeanour was entirely genuine, the man sighed.
“Look, I am finishing it with my next spell,” he declared to her. “If you're serious, stop screwing around. Come at me with everything you got.”
“Fine!” she retorted.
The two parted.
Wonsoo moved behind his barriers, then began an incantation.
“Ariel, to me.”
Gwen pulled Ariel closer to her torso.
Discretely, she supplied a flow of Draconic Essence to her fingertips.
"Eeee!" Ariel indicated that there was no need. "Eeee! EE!"
She released her Familiar just as Wonson began his chant.
There was no need to 'feed' her Familiar because Ariel had just 'requested' her Draconic-essence much in the same way Caliban demanded her vitality. Having gotten accustomed to Caliban's liberal consumption of her vital force, all she had to do was channel her Draconic Essence toward her Conjuration Sigil for Ariel to subsume the usually inoperable resource.
She quickly glanced at her opponent.
Wonsoo had his Mud-Shield, Mud-Armour, and a shit-load of Mud-mana stacked here and there. Whatever the Mud-Mage had planned, he was confident that she couldn't do shit to him.
That would be his mistake.
By now Gwen had gotten used to the Mud Mage’s slow-incantations, though this one was exceptionally long. From the mana radiating from his body, Gwen suspected it was at least a tier 6 spell, a tier withheld from Gwen until her Spellcraft knowledge caught up with her affinity.
Her Familiar was loaded up and ready to go.
Raw lightning-mana flowed from Gwen's Elemental Gate, channelling into Ariel's body, activating the Draconic-Essence encircling its centre.
Her Kirin-marten expanded to full size.
Ariel’s neck distended, its mane whipping the air. Long, stag-like limbs spiralled from its stumpy, infantile form, and its fur shone with such metallic brilliance that for a moment, Ariel seemed armoured with Dragons-scales.
“LORD KIRIN!” someone cried out in the crowd.
“So she does have a Kirin for a Spirit!”
“Forgive us, Lord Kirin!”
“It is TRESPASS to kill a Kirin…”
“That girl’s going to bring calamity onto all of us!”
A palpable wave of Dragon-fear, dulled by the Force-barrier, rolled over the audience like an undulating tide.
A portion of the guests fell to their knees.
Others began to whimper.
"WONSOO!" Patriarch Liu cried out, half choked with rage, he appeared on the verge of a paroxysm, igniting every mote of his mana to retain his sanity. "DO IT NOW!"
"Cao, I am glad I wore 'the' underpants," Tao moaned beside Mina, who was herself fighting an uphill battle.
“Seven Li of Swallowing Earth!”
Gwen recognised the manifesting phenomena.
Her father had used a similar spell!
She had seen him use it on Sufina's island.
In an instant, Hai had turned an entire twenty-odd meter radius of his strike-zone into a world of sparkling white salt - destroying all hostile flora and fauna in a single strike.
Her Divination tingled.
With added urgency, Gwen willed Ariel forward.
Ariel swished through the air, then made a bee-line for the Mud-Mage.
Gwen wasn’t sure how potent Wonsoo’s AOE was going to be, nor did she have time to gauge Ariel's new abilities. Whatever Wonsoo's plans, she had to finish it first.
The template she chose was her Elemental Sphere.
Ariel’s horns blazed incandescent and viridescent.
Within the material, mortal realm of the Liu's wedding banquet, an emerald-hued celestial object entered the world.
A cacophonic 'Crack!', not unlike Golos at the apex of his insane wrath, washed over the wedding guests with the bone-thrumming intensity of rolling thunder.
But Gwen's wasn't the only spell in motion.
Mud wasn't a flashy element.
From above and below and all around, Wonsoo’s oppressive, ooze-like mana enclosed her being. Gwen was standing unassailed one moment, then unexpectedly, she was underwater - or more precisely, under a deluge of semi-opaque mud.
The force elevated her globular barrier from the floor, swallowing all light. Within the protective shell of her Non-Newtonian barrier, the undertow of an obscure current tossed her about like a snowglobe in a washing machine.
The weakness of her Non-Newtonian Shield became immediately apparent. The all-encompassing crush of Mud rendered her impact-resistant insulation worthless.
Her world went dark.
The mud was now entirely opaque.
Gwen became enfolded in pitch black darkness, her world illuminated only by the glow from her iris, weakly refracted from the glass-like interior of her Shield.
Her Shield shattered.
The walls pressed in, first enveloping her feet and hands, then her thighs. The mud-mana was coarse and cold, with a texture like high-grit sandpaper.
A wave of claustrophobic panic inundated her mind, paralleling the viscous liquid now filling her Shield.
The compressed air was making her head swell.
Her ears popped.
She couldn't breathe.
Outside, Ariel reached its target.
Gwen's payload left her Familiar.
Not one but two Elemental Spheres issued forth from Ariel’s horns; twin emerald suns bright enough to illuminate the entire courtyard, turning night into a smogless summer's day.
The guests stared in stunned silence, overcome by the twin spectacle before them. Those on their knees had already accepted their inevitable demise.
A volatile cocktail of destructive energies washed over the Force Barrer, sending the generators into a hysterical whine.
Wonsoo’s para-elemental quagmire had held the energy of the Emerald Lightning captive, and now the whole duelling area was filling up with immense pressure, threatening to escape via the only logical means.
It was an unexpected outcome for both Patriarchs.
Guo had not anticipated that Wonsoo would take advantage of the arena to ‘fill’ the room instantly with his viscous ‘Mud’ mana, incapacitating Gwen by assailing her on all sides.
Liu, on the other hand, had not foreseen that Gwen could squeeze out an artillery-class AOE capable of taking out his entire manor.
The Elemental Spheres forcefully expanded to their maximum allowance.
The entire duelling arena became an incandescent, rectangular block of light, blinding the audience and obscuring the combatants.
The Force Barrier warped.
A shockwave rang out.
The manor rocked as though an earthquake had struck. Pavements cracked, the pond water churned. A stone bridge collapsed. Eaves fell from the fascia and roof tiles clattered, falling over the panicked guests.
For a moment, the wedding guests wondered if this was the last and final duel they would ever witness, pondering if the green sun was the call to some higher purpose. A few regretted their skeletons in the closet. Others thought of their families and the children in their final moments.
Then the secondary blast hit.
A lightning-nova swept across the arena unimpeded.
The barriers grew white-hot, then dimmed.
The crowd came to their senses.
What happened to the quagmire?
The only beings who remained in the duelling Arena were the girl, looking dazed and confused, and a Kirin handsomely dog-paddling above her head, vainly showing off its mane.
It took Liu all but two seconds to realise what had occurred.
Guo too seemed to have understood, more or less.
Their eyes met.
Liu shied away; his lips ashen.
A flush of colour spread across Guo’s uncharacteristically stony face.
Gwen had defeated Liu's prodigy.
Wonsoo’s plan had backfired.
To think the combination of an enclosed space and highly-compressed mana would amplify the power of the girl's Elemental Sphere.
Guo searched the arena, wondering why there was no Magus Ly to announce Gwen's victory.
A sudden realisation made the corner of Guo’s lips twitch.
If he had been Ly, would he have stood on top of the duelling box, waiting for it to blow?
Shaking his head and turning to Liu with undisguised loathing, Guo stepped away from his in-law.
“A well-fought match,” he declared to Liu, loud enough for the crowd to hear. “I would have contested that curious Banishment, but let us not dwell on such trivial dishonours. If there is nothing else, my family and I will be leaving for Shanghai first thing. The air of Hangzhou, Secretary Liu, is far too humid for a Northerner peasant like me!”
* * *
PLA Super-structural Tower.
Contingency Teleportation Chamber No.11.
A blaring red light illuminated the chamber, followed by a wailing siren indicating an incoming Mage whose Contingency Ring had triggered.
A flash of Conjuration mana blazed across the end-module mandala, hand-etched into the mithril-plated floor.
The figure of a male, slightly singed and fully disoriented, plopped unceremoniously onto the platform.
The medical team rushed to the door.
"Who is it?"
"It's Magus Wonsoo Liu!"
"Mao! From Hangzhou?"
"Sir! Can you hear us?"
The Magus had spread himself on the floor, resembling the Chinese pictogram figure for ‘big’.
He raised a hand to indicate that he was alive.
The Medical Mages regarded one another.
“Sir, you are badly burned,” one of the nurses pointed out.
“Yeah, yeah...Hrrng!” Wonsoo coughed, a spray of crimson issued forth from his lips.
"Get me the burn ointment! We'll stabilise him with Healing Word, then transfer to the 1ST PLA! Get the Transport to get ready!"
Drawing on the last of his will, the Mud-Mage circulated his languished mana, dulling the wracking agony stabbing at his nerves. “Tell Colonel Jiang that I need another week of R&R...”
“…away from Hangzhou...”
"Sir, we need to move you..."
Wonsoo was already unconscious.
* * *
For Gwen, the period after Ariel's double Elemental Sphere passed as though in a trance.
She had seriously thought she was going to die.
When Ariel’s attack filled the entire arena and electrified the mud-like mana, she knew she had fucked up. The AOE was too much for the barriers to handle. Furthermore, the invigorated positive lightning had ignited the mana which Wonsoo had used to fill the room, much like it had done so before in the enclosed sewers under District 109.
But who'd have imagined Ariel could double-up on her spells? She had felt the increased drain on her mana pool and thought the phenomenon a part of her empowered casting.
Her dark world had suddenly become white.
She had wondered if the pressure exerted on her body would pop it like a blood sausage.
And then she recalled that she was in possession of a Teleportation Ring.
The Contingency Ring had been a gift from Gunther, a surety that she would be safe no matter where she ventured. So long as she was close to a Tower, her survival was assured.
If she had expended Gunther’s ring on an ego trip, especially after Wonsoo had explicitly offered a truce, how could she ever forgive herself?
Gwen reflexively dispelled Ariel, much to the crowd's relief.
Caught in a haze, she descended the stage, swallowed by a sea of noise and sound. There were pats on the back, cheers and congratulations; there were also death-stares, as well as jeers and boos born full of anger and disappointment. The chaotic stimulus grew until it was white noise; she saw faces moving to and fro, hands reaching out to touch her for good luck, voices ringing like tinnitus-
“Good work,” a familiar voice cut through the static.
A large towel wrapped around her shoulders, covering the spectacle of her immodest skinsuit.
Gwen looked up.
Jun’s face grinned back at her, his arms folded across his chest.
“Uncle Jun!” An unbidden surge of passion choked the cry of relief escaping from her lips.
Her immediate reaction was to embrace him.
Next, she carefully inspected the complexion of his neck and collarbones for hickeys.
Just as she had finally rested her cheek comfortably against his shoulder, she caught Ayxin staring.
“Ayxin.” Gwen pulled herself away.
“Gwen.” The dragon-kin inclined her head.
The air between the two women sizzled.
“So, are the two of you an item yet?”
“Gwen, not now,” Jun cleared his throat. He cautiously warded off the inquisitive faces of Tao, Petra and Mina with broad smiles. “The short answer is no.”
Ayxin growled, flustered by Jun's confession.
The sound emitted from the Dragon-kin's vocal cords carried with it a suggestive purr. It was a strangely erotic reaction, especially considering her exquisite and alluring choice of form, so much that her audience had to will themselves away from staring too intently.
Gwen wanted to say something witty, but her interjection was interrupted by an uproar from the middle of the courtyard.
“Don’t you understand, Guo, we’re in this together now! Your grandchild and your son have killed the Yinglong's flock! They’re going to bring calamity to Hangzhou and by extension, Shanghai! How will you explain that to the National Assembly? To the Security Council?!”
“Excuse me a moment.”
Her Uncle left, followed closely by Ayxin.
Before Gwen could follow, her friends closed in on her.
“Gwen, are you alright?”
“How are you feeling?”
“What was that spell!?”
“Is Ariel really a Kirin?”
“Can it turn back into a marten?”
The barrage of questions made her head throb.
She noted that the assembly of wedding guests who had enjoyed the death match was now also craning their necks to hear what she had to say to her friends and family.
"Yes, I am okay. That was an EMPOWERED Signature spell. Ariel IS NOT A REAL KIRIN, and I am sure it could turn back into a MARTEN if it wanted to."
With the euphoria of seeing Jun now displaced, her muscles ached as though each piece had been individually racked and screwed.
“Overextended your mana channels, I’d wager,” Petra noted Gwen's unnatural stiffness. She moved behind her cousin and began massaging her shoulders. “You’re going to need a week's worth of bed rest, and healing from Babulya on top of that. Assuming you’re continuing with Master, we’re probably looking at a whole new body scan as well.”
“Yeah.” Gwen closed her eyes and sunk into the sensation of Petra’s fingers kneading through her bruised and battered flesh. Her commitment to Magister Wen had to continue. Less so on Petra's account, and more so out of necessity. According to Jun, so long as Pudong and the PLA Tower both had equal access to Wen's research data while Gwen remained in China, they would abide by their unspoken agreement to leave her be. Should that teat of knowledge dry up, only Mao knew what frenzy the PLA could work themselves into.
A not so familiar voice caught Gwen's attention.
It was Chen Pao, and the young man had accosted Ayxin, separating her from Jun.
Holy moly, Gwen tugged at Petra. This she had to see.
Pao was staring at Ayxin with his eyes peeled, as wide as quail-eggs, possessing the same ferocity which he had earlier garnered for Gwen. As he came closer to the Dragon-in-disguise, however, the young man appeared to grow less sure of himself.
“You…” Pao stuttered. "I..."
Then to their surprise, he back peddled.
“Miss? Do… I know you from somewhere?”
Looking at Ayxin strutting around in her laundered Hello Kitty t-shirt, something clicked between Gwen’s ears.
Ayxin must have 'borrowed' her likeness!
The Dragon-kin had asked for a change of her clothes back on Lotus Peak! Assuming the woman ventured into the human world searching for Jun, the only garb the dragon-woman would have possessed was Gwen's gift of mundane, non-magical clothing. Ergo, to enter the human world, it would have been best to assume Gwen's likeness, not to mention the Anhui border guards had seen her prior, both at the crossing and at the Forward Operating Base.
Bloody hell, you snake bastard! Gwen spewed internally. You're in violation of copyright! You wouldn’t download a teenage body, would you?
But of course, the Dragon-kin had done just that. Ayxin was arrogant, entitled, and perfectly happy taking people’s shit without regard. Not to mention that getup! God, how old was the woman? TWO HUNDRED?! Parading around like she’s sweet-sixteen, do dragons know no shame?! How thick was their skin?
To everyone's surprise, Ayxin did not berate the young man.
“Your suffering was my oversight, young Mage. I shall now clear your mind. Go and sleep off your sorrows -tomorrow will be a better day, and all your woes will pass like a summer squall.”
"Yes, Mistress." Pao appeared to have acknowledged Ayxin's cryptic response.
The young man turned toward the exit, catching Gwen and her posse in the process of eavesdropping on their conversation.
Gwen swallowed nervously as their eyes met.
Chen’s orbs were bloodshot with sentiments he could not even begin to rationalise. It was as though someone had crammed his brain full of solicitudes, and was now demanding forgetfulness in the same manner that Gwen would CTRL-A and DEL on a spreadsheet.
Oh Lordy, her heart ached with second-hand pity, the poor sod.
Pao bowed deeply.
“I am sorry I mistook you for someone else,” the young man apologised. “Please forgive my blindness.”
“Look, it’s not your fault.” Gwen waved her hands defensively, battering away the wretched misery emanating from the young man like a stench. “We all make mistakes.”
“I will do everything in my ability and beyond to exonerate your reputation.”
“That’s not really necessary…” Gwen was serious. She wanted to put this episode behind her. Being slut-shamed in front of half of Hangzhou's high society wasn't really the sort of experience one cherished.
But before Gwen could continue, Pao walked away, compelled by a greater force than Gwen's mortal presence.
With the young man gone, she approached Ayxin.
The two 'girls' were the same height, with near-identical figures, creating a curious visage for Gwen's cousins to digest.
“Don’t expect me to thank you,” she addressed the dragon-woman cattily.
Team Cousin joined the two.
“Gwen, who is this?” Petra examined the Caucasian girl, but couldn’t quite pin Ayxin’s mien onto her internal world map. The Gwen-like girl possessed the facial features of a Northern European, such as clarified eyes, strong brows, high cheekbones and a Roman nose, but the rest of her face was very much Southern-Han, with gentle curves and a sharp chin rounding off her jaws. Rather than a beauty that felt real, Ayxin's comeliness appeared as though sprung to life from a silk-screen painting.
Gwen introduced her uncle's dragon D'amore.
“Ayxin - Petra. This is Tao. This is Mina.”
“Guys, this is Ayxin. She’s a Demi-human-dragon-kin.”
Ayxin snubbed Gwen's cousins.
“Ai's got an attitude, eh?” Tao chuckled. He straightened himself, then threw a gang-sign up in Axyin's face. “Sup, Ayxin! You wanna party, you come to me, gurl! I show you the best beats in town, real Culture, with a Capital SEE.”
Mina was a far better listener.
"Umm... Where's she from?"
“Huangshan.” A mischievous smirk touched Gwen’s lips. “Lotus Peak, to be specific.”
“But that’s where…” Petra traversed her eyes until they landed on Ayxin. A flicker of Divination passed behind her orbs, then the Russian girl audibly gasped.
Petra retreated a step and bowed.
Mina quickly followed suit.
Tao appeared confused.
"Wat's wrong with chu?"
"Peaches! Shut up and bow!"
Ayxin waved them away.
“I am here for a private matter,” Ayxin dismissed the young Mages. “There is no need for ceremony.”
“Dangerous as she might be, she’s a cool Sheila.” Gwen tucked a hand against Ayxin's narrow waist. “Did I mention she’s got the hots for Uncle Jun?”
Mina shot Ayxin a look that was immediately filled with alarm.
“Hmm, you have been very liberal with me,” Ayxin chided Gwen. “Your overfamiliarity displeases me.”
“You came uninvited!” Gwen fired back at her. “What did you do with Uncle Jun? The two of you were gone for a long time.”
"I fail to see how that is any of your business."
"My business? Oh ho ho..."
“Gwen…” Petra touched a hand to her head to suppress a sudden migraine. She pulled her cousin away from the Dragon-kin. “How is this possible? Ayxin shouldn’t be here. It’s not possible for her to be here!”
“I wouldn’t know.” Gwen studied the dragon-kin, hypothesising a few potential possibilities. “She’s here though, so I'd say it's a bit late to worry about Shielding loop-holes.”
“What about her C-O-R-E?” Petra whispered warily. The vast majority of the guests had cleared out by now. The place was filled with servants cleaning up what remained of the banquet. “You know…”
"That's a good point." Gwen turned to Ayxin. "So, how is it that-"
“AYXIN!” Jun’s voice called out from beside Liu and Guo. “I need you for a moment, can you spare a minute?”
“I can,” Ayxin's voice effortlessly carried over to Jun.
The cousin-crew watched Ayxin depart.
“She got a nice ass.” Tao smacked his lips. "She hollering from the Anhui Frontier, you say?"
That's MY ASS, Gwen resisted the urge to punch Tao in the arm. She could feel her Draconic-Essence trickling back now, unknotting her muscles one by one.
Both Mina and Petra regarded Tao with distaste; there were terrible listeners, and then there were terrible listeners.
“No, Peaches.” Gwen mimed a flying dragon with her fingers. “She’s a Winged Drake, a Dragon-kin. Half human, half Demi-God, and she’s over two hundred years old.”
“SHE’S OVER TWO HUNDRED YEARS OLD?!” Tao suddenly looked up. "If dragons live for thousands of years, does that make Uncle Jun a cradle-robber?”
"Naw, she's an old goat looking to tuck a young ram," Gwen snorted spitefully. "Say, where's Percy?"
Mina and Tao both shrugged.
"I saw him leave right after you won," Petra informed her cousin.
Gwen exhaled deeply before surveying the desolate courtyard now empty of guests. Only the NoM servants remained, scrubbing grease and vomit from the tiles, mementoes left over from her inexpert Dragon-fear.
"Come on," she notified the others. "Let's see what the oldies are up to. Maybe we can leave for Shanghai tonight. I don't think I've ever missed my apartment so much as I do now."
* * *
"Jun, I signed you a Pass through to the Anhui Frontier because you said your niece needed training, not so that you could slaughter the Yinglong's flock!"
"Magus Liu, it's a little disingenuous to back peddle now, both you and I know the rules. Why raise a fuss after the fact?" Jun had on his usual, affable grin. From the looks of it, her uncle was trying to dissuade Liu from weaselling out of their gambit.
"Because he lost his gambit, and now he wants to reclaim his face," Ayxin interjected before Liu could continue. "You can see it on his face."
"Excuse me, who are you?" Liu snapped, his eyes narrowing with annoyance, his patience no longer generous after losing Wonsoo. From the Secretary's annoyance, this wasn't the first time Ayxin had spoken up while the 'men' were talking. "I have been nothing but courteous to you, young lady. I suggest you take your wisdom and leave my estate, right this minute."
"I refuse," Ayxin scoffed. "If Jun stays, I stay."
"Guo, this is your son's guest, are you going to let her insult me in my own house?" Liu's tepid attempts at dragging her grandfather into the muck no longer escaped Gwen now that she was over her shoe-euphoria.
"I would rather think our esteemed guest can do whatever she likes." Guo meet his son's eyes.
"Oh yes," Klavdiya informed Ayxin. "You just be yourself, dear."
"Yes, I intended to." Ayxin eyed Jun's parents suspiciously. Jun's father had the scent of a drought-priest, but the mother was strange to her. She had learned that mothers-in-law were frightful beings. If so, why were they so nice?
"Guo!" Secretary Liu's voice took on a higher pitch and volume. "This insolence is unbecoming! You think that just because you have defeated Wonsoo, you can just walk sideways all over the House of Liu? Did you know crabs are a Hangzhou delicacy?"
"Secretary, there's no need for that kind of language," Jun stepped between his parents, his in-law, and his dragon-girl; his forehead was sweltering despite the cooling glyphs climate-controlling the courtyard.
"Let's just part amicably, shall we? Where's Hai and Qīn, anyhow? Shouldn't they be here to acknowledge how... er... 'events' are going to go forward? It's their child after all."
Jun's diplomacy seemed to embolden the desperate Secretary.
At the mention of his future grandchild, the man's face suddenly grew grim.
Liu clicked his tongue rudely.
"If you think I am going to hand over my grandchild just like that, Guo, you've got another thing coming. You uncultivated peasant farmers-"
“HOW DARE YOU INSULT JUN!” Ayxin tongue-lashed the unsuspecting Secretary. “CHASTISE YOURSELF!”
The Dragon-kin's words reverberated through the air with a palpable force. With the deliverance of the last syllable, something overcame the Secretary, crushing his being until only crumbs remained.
To the surprise of the Songs and the servants who remained, Liu prostrated himself before Jun and Ayxin.
Though 'prostrate', in Gwen's opinion, could hardly do the man's actions justice.
What Liu performed was a full-body, Manchurian kowtow; one in which the sycophant threw oneself on the floor, flattened one's body while on hands and knees, then slammed one's head against the floor.
Too bad for Liu, his estate had used solid granite for the flooring.
The audience winced as Liu fell face first on the pavement, pancaking his facial features.
A bloody tooth went flying.
"FUCK ME!" Tao muttered audibly.
The spectacle lingered, as did the awkward silence.
"Protect the Master!"
"Defend the Patriarch!"
Abruptly, guards began to converge from the shadows, the doorways, and the roof. All in all, a dozen Mages of various seniority surrounded the outer courtyard.
Jun shook his head.
"Peaceful Hangzhou isn't just for show," the Ash Bringer chortled sardonically.
Jun's derision struck true. Hangzhou had remained safe and unmolested by external forces since the fall of the Qing Dynasty almost a century ago, and its peace had diminished the vigilance of its denizens.
Ayxin stood unmoved, her visage that of an empress who could command the death of Liu's men at a whim.
She turned to the Secretary.
Secretary Liu racked his brain for something to say that would save his face. His lips, however, defied his cereberal commands, welded shut by some external, compelling force.
Mind-Magic? Liu panicked.
Was it Guo?
He willed himself to raise his head.
It was no good, he may as well be Petrified.
The beleaguered Secretary was saved by the bell, for his helpless acquiescence was interrupted by the sound of Qīn's harrowing shriek from the eastern gate.
Liu’s bleeding mien darkened considerably.
To lose face in front of his beloved daughter was a fate worse than being beaten half to death.
He recalled instructing her to stay away until the night was over and done with, though it would appear the commotion from Wonsoo's loss had disturbed the inner courtyard enough to summon Qīn and Hai from their love nest.
Qīn ran across the courtyard, silk robes streaming behind, her white-jade flesh dancing against the pale light. She fell to her knees, heedless of the muck, then scooped up her father with both arms.
A flow of positive energy suffused Secretary Liu, who became putty in his caring daughter's hands.
Hai then appeared at the threshold connecting the inner and outer courtyard.
“Jun, what is the meaning of this?” Hai sheepishly entered. He noted a little too late that Guo glared at him with an expression that could only be matched by the frigid hostility exhibited by Jun's libidinous little minx.
But the girl's anger was different.
Hai read upon the girl the body language of a woman in love defending her beau.
"Father, can you get up?" Qīn pulled at her father desperately.
"Ayxin. That's enough," Jun pleaded with his draconic-companion. "Sectary Liu wasn't serious."
Ayxin lifted her chin imperceptibly.
Liu felt his lips loosen.
“Qīn, get away!” he blurted out. “The girl's a Mind Mage!”
“You'll be sorry!” Qīn screeched at Ayxin. The willow-like woman turned to her husband. “Hai! Do something!”
* * *
Hai almost tripped over his own feet.
'HE' should do something?
That’s his brother, the fucking Ash Bringer and his mind-warping Grey-Ghost escort standing there, and the Salt Mage without a catalyst-Pendant should do something? Not to mention Gwen was glaring at him judgementally, though that was expected... AND his whole bloody family, including his little sister, Nen, his mother, Klavdiya, and his nieces and nephews are all waiting for him to play the silly bugger.
Do something? She may as well have asked him to shove a wand up his arse and do a fucking Tripak routine.
Hai scratched his head.
His wife began to sob.
What the fuck was his wife thinking?
Should he fight his fucking father?
Fight Jun’s Hello-Kitty?
But Hai instinctively knew he had to do 'something'.
In a situation like this, the greatest danger of all was to do nothing.
“So…” Hai swept his gaze over those critically observing every hair on his head, groped the air for something to say, then sighed with exaggerated resignation.
“Look," he began. "It’s my wedding, fellers. Maybe ease off on the politics? Have some tea, there’s still the cake left. Can't we just all be friends?”
A curious silence descended among Hai's audience.
Hai breathed out.
Did it work? He wondered.
That was easier than he'd imagined.
An F-bomb echoed across the desolate courtyard.
An empty bottle of Maotai flew toward Hai's general direction.
Gwen's father ducked.
Behind his head, the Enchantment-strengthened ceramic bottle bounced against a wall, fracturing the sandstone before rebounding from the granite floor and into the pond with a plop.
The 250ml rebuke had come from his daughter, who was reaching for another bottle even as she was being restrained by Petra.
* * *
For Gwen, watching her father putting on a self-satisfied smile finally broke something inside her.
One childhood marooned with Morye Song was one thing.
Two childhoods lost at sea with Morye-cum-Hai was more than a girl could grin and bear.
Feeling her chest ache, a curious revelation gripped her.
Gwen discovered that she wasn't mad at Qīn, at Secretary Liu, or even her grandfather. They were people with an agenda, with goals that were, in their own twisted way, admirable. Men and women like her Grandfather, they worked toward their single-minded objectives with an ego-centric amorality that, at the very least, implied devotion.
But her father.
Hai 'fucking' Song.
All he cared about was his own God damned happiness.
Her father couldn’t even meet the most basic metric she could imagine in a human being: to do no evil, to leave one's family out of one’s own cock-ups.
“HOW DARE YOU?! HOW CAN YOU LAUGH?”
The banshee-shriek that rang out across the courtyard was unconsciously enhanced by Illusion.
“YOU got us into this mess! We're only here because of YOU!"
"FUCK you and your careless bullshit!"
Her face had become a twisted mass of bubbling rage pouring forth from every oriface.
"YOU LEFT ME OUT TO DRY! AGAIN!"
"SOME FUCKERS TRIED TO HAVE A GO AT ME! AGAIN!"
"WHERE THE FUCK WERE YOU, ASSHOLE?!”
Hai’s first instinct was to get the fuck out of the way, but Qīn’s presence tethered him to the emotional cluster-fuck wearing his daughter's face like a ball and chain.
“Gwen! Calm down! Woa… Bloo…Z" Hai stammerd. "HEY! CALM DOWN! You won, right? Everything worked out! What's the problem?”
Gwen's hazel eyes glowed bright blue.
A cascade of Dragon-fear leaked from her body.
Both Petra and Mina stood frozen in their tracks.
Sensing her imminent implosion, Jun rushed toward Mina and Petra as Gwen dragged her two cousins bodily across the floor in an act of superhuman strength; dead set on find another Maotai-projectile.
A surge of electricity arced from Gwen’s body.
The two girls jumped back.
Petra, being a Mineral Mage, circumvented the accidental assault readily.
Mina proved less resilient. She swore under her breath and nursed her hand as she circulated a mote of positive energy, fighting off both the supernatural feeling of fear and the numbness paralysing half her body.
“Shit!” Gwen spluttered, forcing herself to cool her superheated jets. “Oh my God! DAMN IT! Sorry! This is on you, Dad! If Caliban was still around, I’d…”
Jun reached Gwen just in time.
He reached out and pressed Gwen to his chest, burying her face so that her cries became muffled.
“There, there…” her uncle comforted her awkwardly.
“Jun, you can't let this go, not this time. This...this fucker…”
“It’s okay, I get it… shush… shhh…."
Arcs of electricity fired from her hair, her body, her fingers.
Jun circulated a sliver of Ashen mana into his niece.
Within her Astral Body, he sensed the Dragonic Essence fighting back.
The girl's got a long journey ahead, Jun breathed out empathically, holding Gwen captive until her limbs ceased their struggling.
The front of Jun's shirt was soaked.
His niece's meticulous makeup was ruined, though she was sedated and calm and no longer reaching for bottles.
A chilling breeze swept the outer courtyard, rustling the willows.
The screaming, the shouting, the crash of bottles and the sob of human misery ceased.
Hai stood awkwardly to one side, facing his family, watching his daughter hugging his brother's waist in a daze. Slowly, unconsciously, he averted his gaze.
Not far from her husband, Qīn recovered from Gwen’s sudden hysteria, her right hand firmly rested against Liu's back, while her free hand dabbed the blood from her father's face. Her eyes persisted in begging her husband to do something, to somehow make this go away.
Liu remained kneeling, certain realisations swirling inside his head as his fevered mind cooled.
Guo stood beside his wife, his temple throbbing with agitation at his increasingly incomplete knowledge of their circumstances, one hand gripping the hand of his wife of over four decades.
Klavidya slumped against her husband's rigid body, overwhelmed by disappointment and an indescribable sense of shame.
Nen hugged Tao and Mina to her sides and thanked Mao's lucky red-stars that she had married the right man. Her kids likewise stood intimately beside their mother, feeling such sympathy for their cousin that Nen's wordless devotion felt sinful and undeserved.
Petra stood alone, thinking of thoughts others could not know.
Opposite Petra was Ayxin, who studied the humans to her left and right like an anthropologist having found the last tribe of the Anthropophagi, trying to document emotions and interactions she could only begin to guess at. How queer were these low-land creatures, how full of passion and vigour for their transient lives! As her eyes fell upon Jun holding his niece, she too felt pregnant with unbidden emotion. Ayxin relented the pressure of her will upon Secretary Liu, then looked toward the direction of the Mount, where her father may very well be watching. Was this it? Ayxin wondered. Is this what they call the human condition?
Not wishing to be vortexed into the business of their betters, the guards and servants remained very still, becoming invisible, becoming decor.
A Message spell bloomed beside Jun's ear, breaking the spell of silence.
"As I was saying..." Jun turned to Secretary Liu. "...before I was interrupted, there's going to be someone from Central coming."
"C-Central?" Liu stammered.
His eyes watered.
Had the ploy gone too far?
All he wanted was for the Songs to join their faction!
Guo would go so far as to appeal to the Central Committee of the Chinese People's Communist Party?
Almost as if on cue, the air hummed.
Gwen had seen high-tier Teleportation once before - when Gunther had come to her rescue in Blackheath.
A flash of silvery Conjuration engendered in the air.
A silvery mandala laid itself over the floor, burning the pavement with its white-hot mana, ensuring that there were no obstructions for the traveller's arrival.
At its conclusion, a spatial tear opened as though someone had unseamed space and time with a scalpel.
The first to emerge was a handsome woman in a standard off-white military blouse, dark tie, pencil skirt and black heels, the badge and lapel on her collar and shoulders indicated she was from was from the Central Confidential Communications Bureau.
The next two were men in their thirties and forties respectively, each exuding palpable auras. One had the build of a close-combat Transmuter, the other the stocky form of an Earthen Abjurer. Both of the men carried with them a stock of Wands strapped to their thighs. The Transmuter furthermore had a four-foot sword strapped to his back.
The last man to step through the portal was an old gent with greying hair. He wore a cotton-mandarin jacket with knots for buttons, paired with pants and hand-stitched coarse-cotton shoes. As the man dusted himself off, he gave off the air of a farmer having arrived home after a long day at the fields.
His eyes were hidden behind two thin lines that hid his orbs, made prominent by a profusion of crow's feet.
"Guo, you old dog! How are you? It's been a year since I last saw you at the National Congress!"
Guo, Jun and Klavdiya were already bowing before the portal had fully formed. The younger members of the family followed suit, as did Secretary Liu and his daughter.
The guards fell to one knee.
The servants lowered their heads against the pavement.
Ayxin furrowed her brows.
"You?" She glanced at Jun before turning to the stout, smiling gent.
"Do you remember me?" the silver-haired gentlemen chuckled.
"Miao...Yang-Bò?" Ayxin recalled. Dragons possessed eidetic memory. "You're Secretary Miao."
"It's Secretary-General now."
To their surprise, Miao bowed, lowering his head respectfully.
Liu's complexion was now the colour of freshly laundered bedsheets.
"You look different, Lord Ayxin."
"As do you, Mr Miao. You look like an old man."
The man didn't look a day over fifty, Gwen observed from behind her uncle, in fact, he appeared younger than her grandfather.
"Haha, Lord Ayxin, you're as ruthless as ever." Miao chuckled, his sonorous voice pleasing to the ear. "I am eighty-two, can you believe it? Now, if you would excuse me a moment, we shall negotiate the terms of your unexpected visitation shortly. I assure you, Lord Ayxin, you will not be disappointed."
"Do as you wish."
Secretary-General Miao extended a hand.
Ayxin raised hers.
Miao clasped the Dragon-kin's appendage and shook it vigorously.
"Welcome to Hangzhou, Shanghai, Lord Ayxin. I am sure you will find Pudong to your liking!"
He then turned toward the humbled assembly.
"The Chinese Communist Party welcomes her eminence, Lord Ayxin of Huangshan, scion of the Yinglong, an ally to mankind and now our state-sanctioned VIP, the first of her kind in fifty years!"
'Clap! Clap! Clap!...'
Miao’s bodyguards broke into a standing ovation.
Swept up by the moment, Gwen clapped as well.
Every pair of hands in the room followed suit, including the guards and the NoM servants.
'Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap! Clap!'
The calm had passed, now a tempestuous ovation filled the once quiet courtyard, signalling the swelling of the next act.