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The girls’ quiet dinner at home was joined by Richard and Lulan, both taking a few days off from adventuring. Kusu forbade Lulan from ‘being a bother’ to their saviour, but the ex-Clanner couldn’t care less about her brother’s idiosyncratic politeness, coming and going as she pleased.

Conversely, Petra had taken a liking to the girl and didn’t mind Lulan at all. Perhaps it was because of Lulan’s ability, though more likely, Gwen guessed, it was because Lulan was what they called a ‘straight shooter’. The girl didn’t have a deceitful bone in her body. Whether because of her Iron affinity in Earthen magic or merely that she was raised to be simple, Lulan meshed well with the Russian beauty whose formative years were spent amongst Factional politics and intrigue.

“So, what do you think about bringing Percy as a lucky charm?” Richard began after dinner was done and dusted.

“It should be fine, though I’d have to confirm with Grandfather. I'll say its a bonding exercise.”

Gwen wiped her hands on a napkin, then reached for the rice pudding. Now that she had a few days to settle down, her metabolism was giving her hell. Although her draconic essence suppressed her Void-induced hunger, it was no better in its relentless demand for snacking.

“That would be best.” Richard leaned back. “Training with Lea is costing me an arm and a leg! We could all do with a boost to our extracurricular budget.”

Upon hearing her name, Lea looked up from the living room, where she had been playing with Gwen’s familiars. Though sapient, the Undine felt more at home conversing with its fellow elementals, even if one of them was Void-serpent with endless hunger, and the other was a worshipful Kirin.

When the trio had met the other night, Lea had been intimidated by Ariel’s draconic-demeanour, so much that she quivered behind Richard. It took a drop of her emerald-essence and several minutes of coaxing to finally convince Lea that Ariel was indeed its marten self and not some predatory Dragon looking to eat or mate. 'Look!' Gwen had pointed out. 'Ariel has no ding-a-ling!'

“Where are you thinking of taking us?” Gwen spoke between mouthfuls of rice custard.

“A Dungeon - well, a Monster Lair.” Richard produced a Lumen-caster from his ring, and projected images of what looked like a hole dug into the side of an escarpment, surrounded by dense shrubbery. “We were clearing the Tonglv canal when we discovered it.”

“What’s in it?”

“Water Monkey's Den.”

"WOA~!"

Gwen briefly envisioned ten billion Sea Monkeys swarming forth from the cavern’s mouth in a white-pink devouring wave, their little shrimpy claws snipping away at every inch of organic matter in their krill-path.

“He means Watery Ghosts,” Petra pointed out, sensing Gwen’s remarkable confusion.

But her cousin appeared taken yet again, now imagining ten billion undead, incorporeal Sea Monkeys rushing forth like that scene from Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, only the spectral millions were starved Sea Monkeys out for vengeance against their neglectful teenage owners, lead by Krillagon, last of the Heir of Krillisildur.

“They look like bedraggled Jueyuan.” Lulan decided to lend a helping hand. “Only with giant bulging eyes, sharp claws and teeth capable of chipping my iron sword. They’re also cannibalistic, though they prefer other meat. The locals say they're single-sex beings that rape human women, though I am sure that's made up. We saw females while we were in the den.”

“Holy hell.” Gwen grimaced. “That sounds nasty as anything.”

“Yep.” Richard observed the Familiars mucking about as he spoke. “Bloody good cores though, they’re semi-sapient and so make great material for mid-tier magical items. Especially for imbuing water-based Enchantments.”

“Well, what’re we looking at?” Gwen, the capitalist entrepreneur, raised a critical, snobbish brow.

“About 50 to 300 HDMs, pending on the tier,” Richard sagely advised. “There’s A LOT of the buggers in that cave though. We got through about three dozen of the little nippers before we had to retreat.”

“How come?” Gwen glanced toward Lulan, the last persons she would have associated with the term 'retreat'.

“They had the home ground, and they’re ambush predators, and they have low cunning, and they run away,” Lulan grumbled, puffing out her cheeks. “If it weren’t for Richard and Lea, some of us could have died.”

“Their claws and teeth are poisonous as well,” Richard added. “At least these buggers are. Your wound festers if left unchecked, starts oozing pus after about an hour, then there's the fever.”

“Sounds like an infection.” Gwen was reminded of a National Geographic episode she saw about Komodo Dragons.

“Well, 'disease' then.” Richard shrugged. “We pushed about a kilometre before the caverns widened. Crevices and cross-tunnels all over the joint. I figured it would be best to get you in on the action, maybe invite Mina as well.”

“Team cousin?” Gwen laughed. "Round two, monkey boogaloo?"

“Possibly, unless Petra wants to come? We’re in it for the money after all. I doubt Tao and Mina would care for HDMs.”

“I am always on the lookout for more HDMs.” Petra raised her hand. “Research, training, luncheons, rent, clothes, power, extra-curriculum - everything costs HDMs. Shanghai is an expensive city.”

“Bloody oath, ain’t that the truth,” Richard laughed.

“YES! Shanghai is VERY expensive! Kusu and I pay almost a hundred HDMs per month!” Lulan replied with a shell-shocked expression. When she had received her first paycheck of 300 HDMs, she had thought herself the wealthiest she had ever been. A few weeks later, 80 HDMs went to training, 55 went to rent, 25 went to food, and 75 went to tuition. Since then, Lulan had become budget-conscious, ever paranoid that a single mishap would wipe her out. Her immediate goal, though laughably insignificant, was to be as well provisioned as Gwen, casually spending 1 to 2 HDMs on high-class meals in fancy restaurants with 5-star reviews. She also had her eyes on some clothes which Kusu disapproved of; cementing her opinion of him as a dried up, scrotal prude.

“The PLA ain’t taking care of it?”

“Naw.” Richard shook his head. “There’s a Dungeon-Clear bounty though. I am betting there’s a bigger monster inside controlling these fish-faced monkeys. They’re staying put for now, but once their numbers swell…”

“They’ll be out in force,” Petra agreed. “The Construction Bureau's cleared the land, right? It's aquaculture from the Yangtze to the coast.”

"So what?" Lulan asked. "That's how it is in Hangzhou and Suzhou."

“That means no more food for the Water Ghosts,” Gwen expanded on Petra’s conjecture, a simple enough ecological deduction. The destruction of hunting habitats meant apex fauna had to forage for food elsewhere. As for the Water Ghosts of Tonglv Canal, it just so happened that there were 7 million odd meals in Nantong within half a day’s travel. Of course, Shield Stations sheltered the city, but there were tens of thousands of labourers working outside here and there on the canal, enlarging the city’s transportation infrastructure.

“Which is why we should take advantage of the bounty before the local authorities are forced to act,” Richard declared. “I am sure the locals are keen to be not torn apart in their sleep either.”

“Why does Nantong sound so familiar?” Gwen cocked their head. “I've got it on the tip of my tongue.”

“I worked there a few months ago,” Richard reminded her.

“NO WAIT!” Gwen felt a bulb ignite briefly through the air. “Nantong! The Nantong Fungs! Dai’s Clan!”

“You know the Fungs?” Lulan’s mouth grew sulky. “They’re incredibly uppity! Think they’re better than us just because Nantong's been rezoned to be a part of Shanghai. They're a boat clan, you know.”

“Lulu means the deep-water port,” Richard added helpfully. “The Tonglv Canal offers access to the South China Sea and has trade routes running up to Korea, Japan and the north-east coast of China.”

“Right, thanks, Dick. Lulu, if you meant Dai, we're acquaintances.” Gwen determined that after fighting off Wonsoo and Golos, her instigated duel with Dai’s bodyguard was child’s play. She wondered if it was possible that she could K.O the guy with a single Elemental Sphere. To think that she’d struggled six months ago! Caliban’s Consumption truly was a cheat-like ability. “The Young Master owes me a favour.”

Gwen watched as Lulu's thin, petal-pink lips made an adorable ‘O’. Ever since Lulan’s restoration, she not only looked younger, but more refined as well. Not having to deal with damaged mana channels and a faulty implant that polluted one’s Astral Body could do wonders for a girl's complexion.

“So, interested?” Richard implored his cousin. “We haven’t done anything together since Hengsha.”

“Of course! Sign me up!” Gwen clenched her hand for a fist-bump, which Richard smoothly addressed with one of his own.

“Me too!” Lulan raised her fist as well.

Gwen met her halfway.

“Pats?” Gwen floated a fist toward their femme fatale.

Petra rolled her eyes.
Then met Gwen halfway.

“FOR HDMS!”
“FOR CORES!”
“FOR CCs!”
“…”

Petra refrained from joining the cringeworthy battle cry.
If anything, she whispered, 'For dignity!'

“I’ll let you know by the end of the week.” Richard packed his bowl and chopsticks. “You do your best with our lucky charm.”

 

 

Back at the apartment, Gwen took it upon herself to ask Gunther and Alesia for advice regarding her Spell-list. They had been discussing the virtues of Creature Mage combat versus aerial casting when Gunther dropped a bomb on her.

"ARE YOU SERIOUS?" Gwen shrieked, her startled voice rattling the panes.

"Absolutely." Gunther laughed. "Ariel can direct Morden's Hound Pack. The Arch-Mage's Familiar, Milo, was a Church Grim. It was said to be his Pack's Alpha."

Gwen saw sparks.
Ariel, leading a pack of Lightning Dogs?!
Could anything in this world be more perfect?

“Ugh, I can’t believe you’ve almost caught up,” Alesia's voice uttered from somewhere beside Gunther. “I am… bloody hell, I am thirty-four! Twice your age! What the hell am I doing?!”

“Don’t dwell on it.” Gunther brought Alesia into view, giving her a peck on the forehead even as he wiggled his brow conspiratorially at Gwen to keep from pushing the matter. “More importantly, I am pleased that Ariel mutated into a spirit, and a pseudo-Kirin no less. I dare say it's going to bring you fame and trouble in equal measure.”

“Ah~, about that.” Gwen sat back down on the living room couch. “I was hoping you could tell me more. Did Master ever mention anything about Signature Conjure Familiar rituals?”

Gunther shook his head.

“Not to me. At least not for Conjuration. My Schools are all over the place. I Majored in Evocation. Additionally, Master and I developed an Illusion-Conjuration secondary school to amplify my Radiant powers. Master Henry was an outstanding theorist. Alesia’s Spellbook is likewise chock-full of Signature spells.”

“I wish I could have known him for longer,” Gwen lamented sadly. The loss of her mentor had come so suddenly that even now she felt as though she could return to Sydney and see Sufina and Henry sitting in the Grot, sipping on a cuppa of Golden Mead.

“More than a teacher, Master was like a father to us.” Gunther echoed Gwen's grievance, sympathising with the dour atmosphere. “He had a lot of secrets though. He once told me that he hoarded Signature Spells because Elizabeth Sobel could utilise every School of Magic.”

Gwen nodded. That made sense.
To think that if Henry had remained alive, she would have inherited a treasure trove of Signature Spells from around the world.

“Did Master leave behind any clues for something like a Grimoire collection? Scrolls?”

“No,” Gunther refuted her hopeful fancy. “If anything, Sufina would have a copy, but you were the last one to see her.”

“She didn’t mention anything,” Gwen recalled her last meeting with Sufina. “She had already grown distant by then; I think she’ll revert to her baser instincts after another decade. I hope she’ll at least remember us.”

“I hope so too.” Gunther’s face took on a grim cast. “It’s too bad you couldn’t assume Master’s talent for the Prime Element; else you could have inherited Sufina. I am sure she would have liked you. Remember how you used to feed her that viridescent mana of yours?”

“Oh~, about that…”

Gwen explained the ordeal with her Druidic Essence, with their serpent friend ‘Al’, and her recent acquisition of Draconic Essence.

Her Brother-in-craft took on a thoughtful expression.

“Maybe you should pay Sufina a visit in the near future, anytime within the next five years,” Gunther suggested. “As for Alesia and I, we’ll join you as soon as we’re able to bring back Sobel’s head.”

“On a silver platter,” Gwen added helpfully. "Don't forget, I am a part of this as well. I am coming too."

“Of course.” A smile touched Gunther’s lips, his pupils glowing like two embers in the ambient light of Alesia's apartment. “It haunts me, you know.”

“What does?”

“My failure.” Gunther’s chiselled jaws clenched. “Being unable to prevent Sobel's ploy. Being baited to fight the Leviathan. Given the same choice, I would have gladly allowed the numberless millions to die if it meant Master could be here with us today.”

“Would Master have wanted that though?” Gwen caught the flash of pain as it crossed Gunther's laconic face. Her chest grew constricted; the rare display of raw emotion made it all the more powerful. “Master would have wanted you to help the city.”

“I know.” Gunther sighed. Gwen wondered if Gunther would have liked to be 'Alesia' once in a while and just let loose. “They sentenced Walken, you know. Stripped him of his titles. He’s retired now. Gone to a teaching job. His Faction fell apart. Magister Ferris is the head of the Grey Market now. They’re fully compliant with the rebuilding of the city.”

“That’s good to hear.” Gwen could feel Gunther’s frustration. Her Brother-in-craft would have coveted nothing more than to annihilate Walken, whose misunderstanding had expelled Gunther from the Tower at a critical junction. It was unfortunate that the Radiant Mage's sense of justice did not allow him the satisfaction, knowing that Walken was as much a victim of Sobel’s conspiracy as anyone else.

“Gunther, are you done?” Alesia’s voice came through the LRM Device. “I want to speak to Gwen.”

“She’s all yours.” Gunther retreated from the projected image. “And Gwen, enjoy those CCs. Master might not have left you a Spell Book, but he certainly left you an inheritance.”

“Thanks, Gunther.” Gwen blinked away a few drops of wayward moisture.

“Gwen!”

“Alesia!” Gwen watched as Alesia’s face drifted closer. Her Sister-in-craft had regained her lost vivacity; she appeared far healthier than when they’d last spoken; her complexion once again had that glow atypical of Australian women.

“Bring out Ariel again! I want to see Caliban too!”

Gwen obliged.

“Awww, how wonderful!” Alesia cooed. “I could snuggle Ariel all day, and maybe Caliban, just for a little bit.”

“Ha.” Gwen snickered, wondering how Alesia would feel if she could see Caliban in its Horror Stag Form.

The two women then discoursed regarding Gwen’s future Spellcraft training. Gwen reiterated her proposed Spell-list, asking Alesia for a second opinion.

“I wouldn’t bother with Illusion or Abjuration, to be honest,” Alesia pointed out. “I would focus on Divination, empower my Evocation and Conjuration, master Flight, and specialise as a Hunter-Killer. With Void and tier 6 Lightning, you could be peerless. Get Morden's Dogs up, and you'll be a bonafide living nightmare. Between Dimension Door and Flight, you should be perfectly safe. Don’t you have Gunther’s Shield as well?”

“Hmm…” Gwen weighed Alesia’s advise. It was certainly true that she was a glutton for spells. “Thanks, Sis. I’ll consider your input.”

“Don't over-generalise, but don't over specialise. Too much specialisation and you breed in weakness. You’re going to have teammates. No matter how many spells you know, you're one woman. As a single Mage, you can’t multi-cast anyway,” Alesia advised. “Don't pussyfoot around when you can lay down the Wrath of God. Let’s see some sucker try to attack when they're one Lightning bolt away from electrocution.”

"Well spoken." Gwen snorted.

“Good.” Alesia beamed. “Now tell me again about how you thrashed this Golos feller, in the ass, you say?”

 

 

Gwen wanted to call Elvia as well, but it was getting late. 8 PM in Shanghai meant noon in London. There was no way that on a Tuesday, at midday, Elvia would be in the dorm with nothing to do. She would have to wait for a more convenient time or wait for Elvia to call her back.

“Done?” Petra always secluded herself in her bedroom whenever Gwen called her companions overseas. Her cousin’s self-imposed discipline made Gwen feel glad, grateful, and guilty.

“Sorry.” Gwen dipped her head. “Are you sure you don’t want to join us? Alesia seems quite taken with you.”

Petra shook her head.

“Divided loyalties are never a good thing.” The Russian smiled, her luscious lips forming a rouged crescent. “As long as my studies under Master continues, I am bound to her for the duration of our relationship.”

Gwen inclined her head.

She had raised the matter of Petra’s apprenticeship with their babulya. Klavdiya had assured Gwen that Petra wasn’t an ‘inheriting disciple’ but rather an 'apprentice' in a mutually beneficial relationship. It was akin to the ‘Apprenticeship’ that Alesia had offered Gwen at her uncle’s house; in the parlance of Gwen’s old world vernacular, Petra would be a PhD student, and Wen her Supervising Professor.

Other than guidance, knowledge and a co-authorship, Petra stood to inherit nothing from Wen, and so was bound to the Magister only for the duration of their Thesis on Spell-Cubes. Once released from Wen’s studies after another year or two, Petra would be able to apply for tenure at an institution, join either of the Towers or failing that, become a private consultant.

“Feel like a snack?”

Petra shook her head.

More than a snack, it was more accurate to say that Gwen took meals just before she slept. Once, Gwen had fallen asleep while cooking instant noodles and had almost pulled a Marong, clearing out the whole apartment with the smoke from her flaming ramen.

“G’nite, Pats.”

“Nite, let me know what you end up picking.”

"Will do!"

 


‘Ding!’

Bleary-eyed, Gwen reached for her Messenger Device.

“Gwen!” Mayuree’s voice came across the vox-glyph. "Can you come up?"

Naturally, Gwen was still in bed.

“Why… something important?”

“I’ve got Enchanter Maymaruya here to talk to you, can you come up?”

“Sure, let me get ready!”

“Dress up!”

“Alright, alright,” Gwen buzzed back. “Give me twenty.”

“TEN!”

Gwen rolled out of bed.

A quick circulation of her Draconic Essence was enough to chase away her physical fatigue, though her increased metabolism was giving her an unexpected bane - insomnia. She either woke up hungry, experienced hyper-arousal for no discernible reason, or laid back in bed with her eyes wide open.

She retrieved her matt-navy mini dress from her Storage Ring. Its flared sleeves were formal enough, while its modest hem gave her a dangerous and titillating edge. For shoes, Gwen stuck to her Hermès; she had worn it daily since Hangzhou, savouring the afterglow.

A quick over-the-shoulder ponytail and a pair of cat-eyes later, she was up and over.

“Good morning!” Gwen greeted Mayuree and the old gent seated in the lower living room. Hastily, she scanned the room for Mayuree’s erstwhile shadow, Kitty, but the girl was nowhere in sight. “I am sorry for being late.”

“Miss Song.” The Magus dipped his chin respectfully. “I am Magus Maymaruya, serving under the House of M.”

“Sir, Mia said that you have business with me?”

“Miss Song.” The Magus remained standing while Gwen sat, making her a little uncomfortable. “I would like the pleasure of purchasing and inscribing the Earth Dragon Core you have provided.”

Gwen turned to Mayuree.

“He means the pangolin.”

“Ah.” Gwen nodded. “I would not mind. It’s not mine though, or rather, half of it is mine. How may I repay my benefactor if I were to allow this favour?”

“In currency, favour, or service,” the Magus immediately addressed her concern. “Mayuree’s elder sister, Miss Maymyint, has dire need of it.”

“What do you wish to do with the Core?”

“A gift,” Haymaruya declared. “For the Tyrant of our conquered homeland.”

Gwen raised an exquisite brow.

She and Mayuree had an unspoken pact. She would not unduly expose Mayuree’s history or family, and Mayuree steered clear of hers. They were friends and allies, and it was best to remain as such on the best of terms. Should they unduly gain too much knowledge of one another, it would likely impact the path upon which Mayuree’s prophesy lay.

Beside Gwen, Mayuree remained as quiet as a sleeping lamb.
If knowledge were to be passed under innocuous circumstances, who was she to put a stop to what came naturally?

“Where are you from, Magus Maymaruya?”

“Please, just Maymaruya.”

“Maymaruya.” Gwen squared her shoulders. "Please call me Gwen." 

“From a Frontier south of China.” The Magus’ face grew nostalgic. “A place rich in jade and gems and the bounties of nature. A fallen kingdom once called Myăma.”

“BURMA?” Gwen blurted out. “Mayuree, you’re from Burma?!”

“Please do not use that name.” Maymaruya spoked with quiet dignity. “That is the name of a colonised country. We are the people of Myăma.”

“Right, sorry.” With the aid of her clarifying Ioun Stone, Gwen tried to reconstruct as much of her twin-world reconstruction of Myăma as possible. All she recalled was that the place was a constant hotbed of human rights disputes - that and Aung San Suu Kyi was one of its heroes, suffering house arrest until finally bringing a semblance of democracy to the country in 2015. If this is the year 2003, it could only mean that the Junta was well in control of the state and that in four years, there may very well be a violent but futile uprising. “Say, I might be completely wrong, but how’s Miss Aung San Suu Kyi these days?”

“The daughter of General Aung San?” Maymaruya’s face grew stern. “Her name is Aung San Yuzana. She is unfortunately imprisoned in our captive nation, kept as a prize by the tyrant. Who is this Miss Suu Kyi?”

Gwen quickly glanced toward Mayuree, who sipped her tea gingerly.

“No one. How’s the situation with the Military Junta?”

Maymaruya appeared confused.

“What is… this Junta?”

“Sorry.” Gwen coughed. “I am not well-informed regarding Myăma. Who is keeping General Aung San’s daughter captive?”

“A name that shall not pass our lips, for its gaze sees far, and its ears hear all.”

Gwen’s mind furiously connected the dots presented to her.

Mayuree’s family owned and operated a Mercantile House called the House of M.
She came from a ‘conquered land’ called Myăma.
A ‘beast’ ruled the fallen Frontier, a place famous for gems, jade, and jewels.
It kept the famous daughter of the nation’s founder captive.

A beast that hoarded gems, coveted jewels, and kept a girl captive after taking a kingdom hostage?

RIGHT.

“So.” Gwen smiled delicately for the Enchanter. “Tell me about this Dragon. It's not called... Smaug... is it?”

 

 

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A note from Wutosama

Chapter Ref :: Foreshadowing! 

Bonus ::  Gwen's Outfits
Character Summaries :: Character Summary
Glossary and Magic System :: Glossary

Voting for the novel :: Voting button 

December is almost here! 

It's time to start my editing spree. 

Work ramps down in 2 weeks, so I'll be working on manuscript from mid Dec to Mid Jan. Releases will be likely weekly during that time. 


About the author

Wutosama

Bio: I write on the phone and edit at home. Times are tough!

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