By the time Petra succeeded in dragging Gwen out of bed, it was almost 10 AM.
The family had only gone to sleep around four, having explored what paths Percy could undergo, and what avenues the young digger must avoid at all costs.
"The first rule of Per-secrecy is that we do not talk about the N-word or Percy's unfounded talents."
Gwen had proposed.
"Indeed, the second rule of Per-secrecy is that we do not talk about Percy's N-affinity, at all, to anyone."
The family concurred.
Thirdly, it was agreed that Percy would not use his newfound methodology carelessly and that any extra-curriculum progress would be in a controlled environment, under the strict supervision of his loved ones. Percy, she reasoned, was only fourteen. There was no rush. Now in possession of Abjuration, Evocation, and Transmutation, he was already far ahead of those who had to train their Meta-school Magic the hard way, through hard-coded memorisation and unceasing practice, risking mana burn and regression. He could slowly introduce his 'talent' over the next few years and with Gwen as a herald, his family connections, and some discretion, come of age 'naturally'.
Fourthly - there was no fourthly.
None of the stakeholders within the conspiracy of Songs had answers, nor what questions to ask. All they could do was to wait for an opportunity to uncover Percy’s incidental Consumption. Uncle Jun had mentioned that during Golden Week, he would request a break from his duties with Ayxin and return to Hubei. As for Grandfather, he would ensure that all eyes steered away from Percy and that those who wished to pry did so at their peril.
At its conclusion, after a deliberate sloppy kiss on Percy's forehead, Gwen returned to her room then struck the silken sheets like a corpse. She slept dreamlessly - until Petra twisted her arm.
“It’s time to go back to Fudan!” Petra slapped her thighs. “Up you get, porosenok!”
Gwen fought Petra for the blankets, succeeding in tearing the silken fabric from her cousin’s hands until Petra threatened to open the doors and reveal a semi-nude ‘piglet Gwen’ to the whole wide world.
“Alright! Sheesh, I am up!”
The girls had to be up early because unlike the oldies, whose position offered them Teleportation from the local military ISTC at the state's expense, the girls had to tap into their own pockets.
While Gwen was potentially in possession of a modest mole-hill of crystals, she wasn’t about to spend fifty odd HDMs for no reason other than to save six hours of travel. As students, their time wasn’t worth the crystals, not to mention for a mere 3 HDMs each; the girls could book a private cabin on the return train and catch up.
After a hearty breakfast of pickled vegetables, cured fish and porridge, the girls waited in the courtyard to be seen off by the remaining family members.
Lamentably, the only 'family' who remained were Gwen's father and his lady wife. Guo and her babulya had work; one had patients to save while the other had conspirators to condemn. Percy was deemed too dangerous to remain in Hangzhou for any longer than necessary, and so the grandparents had spirited him away.
Jun and Ayxin were gone via Teleportation as soon as the local ISTC station opened, arriving at Pudong where a major delegation awaited Ayxin’s Demi-divine presence.
“Take care.” Qīn waved at Gwen happily, a shared sentiment.
“You be careful out there.” Hai wore that goofy, guilty expression of his which he carried like an albatross, simultaneously incensing Gwen's ire as well as stoking her sympathy. “If you run into trouble, call me.”
Gwen smiled politely but said nothing.
It would be too awkward after her tempestuous outburst, not to mention her father had shown neither contrition nor remorse.
An estate car took the girls to Hangzhou station in the CBD, where a 13:00 express would bring them back to Hongqiao, forty minutes from Shanghai’s CBD. From the Transit Station, an additional Taxi would return the girls to Fudan.
“Farewell.” Gwen ducked into the cabin, towing Petra by the hand.
The slamming of the door was her final farewell.
Hai watched his daughter and her cousin disappear into the distance with ambivalent emotions.
“Finally…” Qīn muttered beside him.
Hai turned to regard his wife.
“… we’re alone.” She beamed at him.
“I can hardly believe it.” Hai slid a hand around his wife’s waist, feeling the slight bulge of her belly. “My father left me alone. I wonder why.”
“He has heirs to play with,” Qīn quipped wittily. “You’re no longer his favourite.”
“I should be so lucky,” Hai chortled.
For the foreseeable future, it was just the two of them living in the estate, surrounded by wealth, servants, idyllic idleness. The West Lake and its boundless bounties both natural and man-made beckoned, and in seven months, they would be welcoming their child.
It was paradise, one that Hai wasn’t entirely sure he deserved.
What of the future? What would become of a child who lacked the means to tame their talent? Would the ‘drought’ curse manifest yet again in his third child? But that was something he has no control over.
The two kissed, he fell into the embrace of Qīn’s petal lips, falling endlessly into a land of flower and flesh, milk and honey.
Well, whatever. Hai shrugged mentally. The future was so far away.
Why be greedy?
“St Peter’s Golden Gates! Tier 6!?”
On the express train, in the privacy of their cabin for two, Gwen revealed to Petra her recent Elemental upgrade.
Petra stuck out her tongue; in her haste and excitement, she had bitten it.
“That’s insane!” Her cousin could hardly believe her ears. “Is there a limit to Consume?”
“I am certain that I've maxed out diminishing returns,” Gwen confessed. “There was A LOT of deer, Pats. Carps, too, and goats. What Monsters are there beyond tier 7 for Lighting or Air?”
“An ancient Dark-beast, maybe. That or a Behir.”
“Is that like a Lightning-chicken?”
“Like a basilisk, but lighting-wreathed and semi-draconic, oodles of legs. Found in Black Zones here and there, mostly around central Africa.”
“Sounds interesting.” Gwen licked her lips as well, wetting her whistlers. "I could do with one, figuratively speaking."
“You’re not going to become a gourmet hunter, are you?” Petra quipped. Sometimes, the rich and powerful paid a premium for the flesh of rare beasts. Such obscure delicacies could be used in alchemical cuisine that fortified the body. As for her cousin, Petra had no doubt Gwen would likely gobble her victims whole, alive and kicking, maybe with a sprinkling of pepper. “Speaking of which, is Caliban back?”
“Yep.” Gwen made sure there was no one watching, then sprang her Familiar forth.
Caliban slithered into the world, happy to once again savour the air of freedom.
Ariel was already out. In its docile guise, it was discrete enough to pass as a marten-like creature, though a closer inspection would likely stifle the breath of one with sufficient knowledge to recognise a horned, clawed, and hoofed Lightning Familiar with fish-scaled fur.
Her Familiars sniffed one other, then began to play-bite, tumbling under the girls’ feet.
The Hangzhou-Shanghai Express did not serve lunch, but Qīn had ensured that a hearty banquet for two had been packed. One by one they brought out the lukewarm dishes, feasting upon the final generosity of Gwen’s stepmother.
The topic then moved toward Gwen’s future training.
Although the University was said to be open 365 days of the year, its facilities were shut between December 10th and January 7th. There was another break from 19th to 25th of January, where ‘Golden Week’ took place. During these times, the entire University went into lockdown.
Semester 2 began on the 2nd of February.
Semester 3 began on the 9th of July.
The IIUC Selection Trials begans on the 8th of August, with the five finalists and the five reserve members announced four weeks later.
It meant that Gwen had almost ten months to master her spells, gain proficiency in her auxiliary Schools of Magic, as well as pushing Evocation to 5 and Conjuration to 6.
“I’d honestly favour utility over raw power,” Petra advised her power obsessed cousin. “Do you seriously think you need MORE power.”
I need FIREPOWER FIREPOWER FIREPOWER! Gwen channelled Yue, feeling nostalgic for her friend's forever optimistic presence.
“Should I… not?” Gwen twirled a finger around Ariel’s swishing tail, causing it to coil around on her lap. Sensing Ariel's empowered cuteness, Caliban too demanded that Gwen scratch its obsidian belly.
“We’ll work out a plan.” Petra smacked her lips sensuously; Spellcraft was her favourite thing in the world. “You’ve got a lot of Spell learning to catch up. Considering how long it takes to learn high-tier Magic, I don’t think ten months can be considered generous.”
“Took me close to a month to get a handle on Ball Lightning,” Gwen pointed out. “Amongst other things, of course. What do you suggest?”
“Some proper AOEs, now that you’ve got yourself Ariel as a Spirit. Finishing up your Transmutation Utility spells, as well as Divination and Abjuration Utility.”
“Not your style, but you can play around with defensive varieties with contingency triggers like Mirror Image.”
“Ah ~ I want Invisibility!”
“You’re welcome to join the Ghosts anytime,” Petra chortled. “Other than that, don’t expect the state to be liberal with Unsanctioned Magic.”
“It’s not like I can sneak into government facilities with it.” Gwen shrugged. “There’s Polymorph as well. That’s the one people watch out for.”
“A straight ticket to Tianlanqiao.” Petra snorted. "Not to mention its absurdly tricky to master. One wrong move and your organs will never recover. That's why Shifters generally rely on Spirit-forms."
Gwen took another nap shortly after lunch, awakening to the sight of Shanghai as the train passed under the PLA Superstructural Tower.
“God, it looks bigger every time I see it.”
“Most of it is for tapping into Ley-lines.” Petra shook her head disapprovingly. “The Pudong Tower told the CCP the Superstructural Tower would disrupt the flow of geo-energy in the region permanently, but as always, they took the advice as an affront - or a deception.”
“So, did it damage the Ley-lines?”
“Hard to say.” Petra's shoulders fell. “The miasma is dense as anything in Shanghai. The city had already stripped its outer circuit; not to mention the NoM habitats are putting out an absurd amount of waste.”
Gwen was reminded of the bleak landscape she had seen during the District 109 trip. The rural countryside wasn't exactly dead, though it managed only patches of green and brown here and there, giving the impression of leprosy.
Compared to verdant Hangzhou, it was as though the land itself was sick.
The train pulled into the station.
The girls alighted, cutting curt figures across the concrete platform as they made their way to the taxi bay.
“Fudan, Guoding Rd, Apartment B1. It’s the one with the sky-garden, you can’t miss it.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” The taxi driver tipped his hat, then hastily bowed, sensing from the girls’ haughty airs that he had rare guests.
Bustling people, NoMs and Mages alike, surrounded the cab on all fronts, swarming through the streets like balls of sardine. Once they were away from the train station, an endless stream of vehicles meandered through crowded arterial roadways. The atmosphere stank of stale oxygen and stifling mana-miasma; the autumn humidity of early October sent an unpleasant chill through the air, pricking her bare legs.
Safe in the cabin, Gwen slumped back against the leather seats.
Just like that, she was back in Shanghai, as though the passing of a midsummer fancy, no more yielding than a dream.
It took the girls another hour to get through the 6 PM grid-lock.
As the cab pulled into the covered foyer of Gouding B1, Gwen noted a delegation at the apartment’s sliding doors.
It was only to be expected. If there was one person who had both interest and expertise to predict the precise moment of her arrival, it would be Mayuree.
“Goddess, I missed you.” Mayuree pressed herself against Gwen’s torso, almost as if the girl wanted to meld into her. “I can finally go out! WONDERFUL FREEDOM!”
“Hahaha.” Gwen returned the hug. “Sorry I took another week.”
“How was the wedding.”
“Weal and woe,” Gwen replied. "A little too accurate for my liking."
"That's why you never ask!"
The girls grinned.
“Gwen, it’s good to see you back.” the next companion to accost her was Richard and his ‘crew’, meaning Lulan and Kusu.
The cousins embraced.
Again, the girls exchanged greetings, with Lulan woodenly accepting Gwen's Westernised overfamiliarity.
“Kusu, did Lulu give you trouble?”
“Hahaha.” Kusu laughed with the sound of a man coming to accept painful haemorrhoids as a fact of life. Gwen could sense the buried uneasiness underneath Kusu's amiable exterior like intestinal ulcers. Poor bastard, she patted him on the shoulder. An adorable sister was a blessing and a curse.
“I’ve got a banquet set up!” Mayuree beamed. “Ah-Lei cooked up all your favourites!”
“Wonderful!” Gwen waited until everyone was ready before walking through the double doors. “Oh man, have I got a 'show and tell' for you guys!”
“Wow, your father is a cunt.” Richard sipped on a beer, stating what he considered to be obvious, his speech as liberal as ever. “That Qīn sounds like a character. Let's introduce her to Helena. The drama generated from those two clashing could tear a gap into the Elemental Planes.”
“Gosh, I am so... sorry.” Mayuree covered her lips. “What a horrible experience.”
"I'd just do this." Lulan made a cutting motion. "Problem solved."
“Excuse me,” Kusu butted in. “I think you’re all missing the main point here.”
The gathering turned to regard Kusu.
“Gwen defeated Wonsoo, right? Wonsoo Liu?”
Richard shrugged. Who the fuck was Wonsoo Liu?
“THE Wonsoo Liu! The Quagmire?”
“No idea who that is, maybe my brother would know, but I haven’t seen him in months.” Mayuree was as clueless as Richard.
“Come on. You guys seriously don’t know who Wonsoo Liu is?” Kusu was incredulous.
“He’s one of the 90s generation war-heroes, right?” Unlike the others, Petra had witnessed Gwen rooting the whole hog. Wonsoo’s omnidirectional entrapment spell, Quagmire, was as impressive as anything. Apart from his Spellcraft though, she had no interest in the man. She cared little about the workings of the PLA and the Front. As an expatriated Magus to be and a researcher, the chance of her being sent to the Front was zero, barring a cataclysmic failure of the Beijing-Xian battleline.
“He’s incredibly famous!” Kusu marvelled at his friends' ignorance. “During the Meeting of the Sixteen Sects ten years ago, he was undefeated. The Scholar-bureaucrat Houses see him as their big hope of ascension.”
Gwen paused; her chopstick resting halfway to a Wildland pheasant drumstick.
“Er… should I NOT have defeated him?”
“Of course you should have kicked his ass, Gwen,” Lulan declared sulkily. “Why Kusu, you scared?”
“What? No!” Kusu huffed. “Oh, Lulu~. Look, Gwen, what I am saying is that once the news gets out, you’re going to be even MORE famous. I’d be surprised if a single Clanner wouldn’t know your name, or want a piece of you, either for fame or for er... amour.”
“That sounds bloody awful.”
“Gwen,” Petra snickered, thinking of Gwen's future income stream. “Show them what you came home with.”
“Ah, yeah…” Gwen grinned. “Guys, as I said, we got our hands on A LOT of GOODIES in Huangshan and Hangzhou.”
She stepped back.
First, to whet their appetite, Gwen gave her family and friends gifts of silk.
“AND NOW, for our main course - Mayuree, this is for your Auction.”
Gwen then produced one, two, three, a dozen and more Creature Cores from her ring. There were twelve from the Draconic-deer, two from Dragon-carp, and one murky Merfolk-core, as well as one sapient sibling of Ayxin, now deceased.
A fist-sized Pangolin-core rolled across the floor.
Lulan sucked in a breath of cold air.
Kusu’s eyes bulged.
Richard smacked his lips.
“They're ALL DRACONIC?!” Mayuree took the pangolin core and brought it closer to her face. “I know you’ve told me already, but Goddess! REALLY?! You were gone for TWO WEEKS, and you come back with more Draconic-Cores than the House of M has seen in the last financial year?”
“Oh.” Gwen pulled half of them closer to her bosom. “How about you pretend these don’t exist? That one's just a Merfolk Core, still Lightning though, maybe a sliver of Dragon in it.”
“Ha! You wish.” Mayuree picked up another core, her pupils glowing with faint divination. “Great clarity as well. No cracks, no fissures. How the hell? What did you do? These Draconic-beasts died peacefully in their sleep?”
“Magic.” Gwen spread her fingers.
Petra burst into laughter.
Richard's face took on a contemplative mien.
“Say, Gwen.” Her cousin leaned in closer. “Can your 'luck' hold out if we go on a Quest of our own?”
Gwen shook her head.
“Does it have to do with you know what?”
Richard glanced at Mayuree.
“I’ve got a proposition for you and Percy,” he Messaged Gwen silently. “Nantong region dungeon crawl. We’ve almost cleared the whole district, but a lair refuses to budge. Give you the details later.”
Gwen inclined her chin.
Mayuree observed Gwen's interaction with Richard; as a Diviner, she was very sensitive to Silent Messages.
“Gwen, if you’re going away again, take me with you!” the girl interjected guilelessly, her almond eyes begging for approval. “I hate being stuck home, please?”
Richard formed a, ‘noooo,’ with his lips.
Gwen grinned amiably at her cousin.
“If there’s any chance you can join us, Mia,” she answered diplomatically. “Then I’ll be happy to have you with us! Adventuring with you in D-109 was awesome.”
Richard returned to sipping his beer, his expression as stoic as a monk's.
The girls clinked glasses.
Gwen swilled down her glass of red, savouring the dryness of the oaky Cabernet Sauvignon.
Mayuree sipped hers gingerly. Like most Asians, she had a low tolerance for the sauce.
The rest of the dinner proceeded with small talk, in particular, the HDMs Gwen stood to gain with her harvest of Draconic-Cores.
“You want any Magic Items crafted?” Mayuree asked after a few more dishes arrived, courtesy of Lei’s extraordinary culinary artistry. “Draconic Cores make master-crafted items, after all. I could offer you a trade-off with our in-house enchanters.”
“Any good suggestions?”
Mayuree tapped her glass.
“Staves, wands, rings, armour, clothing, that sort of thing,” Mayuree suggested. “For example, it’s not much on paper, but a Thunder-Deer’s core could be used to craft a Thunder-Rod.”
“Those things are REALLY expensive.” Lulan appeared nervous just thinking about owning such an item. According to Richard, Lulan had become hyper-conscious of the balance of her bank account after leaving Huashan. For the last months, she squirrelled away every crystal she had earned on her adventures, fearful that she wouldn’t have enough to pay for tuition and training. “Like, heirloom expensive.”
“Not really,” Mayuree explained. “You have to consider what the Rod’s capabilities are. A master crafted Thunder Rod can be used as a knocking-baton that shatters hard-Shields and displaces soft-Shields. It can convert Air and Positive user’s mana into Lightning Bolts at a tier lower than the caster. It can likewise be used to destroy brittle surfaces. Decisively, you can overload the Core for a massive AOE burst. Its a hard counter against Earthen Mages, the most common of Abjurers - which, I might add, counters Lightning and Void.”
“Alright, alright. So, what's the damage?”
“The core I’d say is about 5000 HDMs, while the crafting is usually by Commission, ranging anywhere from a thousand HDM to almost ten thousand HDMs if you want a famous artisan to put their name on it. Keep in mind that this includes the extra materials as well, like the Mithril-inlay, the Elder-wood insert, the dragon-blood inscriptions, and so on.”
“So what you’re saying.” Gwen did some quick math in her head. “I give you two cores; one is for your Enchanter to do his or her pet projects, the other is for the baseline material. Then we auction the Rod?”
“Precisely, or keep the item for yourself,” Mayuree suggested. “For example, we take the two largest cores - around tier 5 - and make the item. In that case, the Rod could likely auction for 12,000 to 15,000 HDMs.
Lulan’s eyes twitched.
What were these numbers, SO LARGE and inconceivable!
She had laboured endlessly for almost a month or more, and she had just made 500 odd HDMs while covering herself with fish-slime and worm-gore. She tried to count the number of zeros in her head, but the tremendous amount gave her a headache.
“Hmm, do you have a list of potential items?”
Mayuree swilled her glass.
“I’ll send someone over and discuss it with you by the end of the week. The sale of your Cores will take up to six months. We’re going to release no more than TWO per month, to keep prices afloat if that’s fine with you. If you want them crafted then sold, maybe up to six months per item.”
“Of course, supply and demand,” Gwen noted. “Cheers, Mia.”
The girls clinked glasses again.
“There’s like 80,000 HDMs in that pile?” Kusu allowed his chopsticks to fall gently beside his bowl. “Mao, I’ve never even seen 10,000 HDMs in one place!”
Lulan’s eyes were two blazing ochre orbs, akin to her berserker days.
“If things go well, we can also borrow some of Gwen’s luck.” Richard burped, replacing the empty bottle. Gwen popped another beer and passed it toward her cousin. “Cheers.”
Lulan and Kusu turned to regard Gwen.
“I suppose.” Gwen grinned. “I’ll have to ask Grandfather for permission to bring our lucky-charm.”
“Very well.” Kusu raised a toast. “For the lucky charm!”
“For Cores!” Lulan raised her juice. Kusu had forbidden his sister from having more than one glass over dinner.
“Hahaha.” Gwen raised her glass as well.
Mayuree wasn’t sure what’s going on, but she had good premonition it was all going to be alright, and so she raised her glass as well.
“For Crystals!” Richard raised his bottle of frothy beer.
Gwen swirled the scarlet liquid in her overlarge glass, then with one tilt of her head, she downed the red wine, leaving not a single drop to linger.