Dean Luo unsummoned his Familiar the moment his paperwork began to disintegrate. There was a brief exhilaration in seeing his workload disappear before Luo realised that requesting the faculty to re-submit their proposals was a far bigger hassle.
He looked over to see how Fudan’s prized Void Mage was handling Ellen's Aural Vortex, finding Gwen sheltered behind a double-glazed Mana Shield. It was no surprise to Luo that the girl was in possession of such a unique Abjuration; knowing her history, he would have been disappointed had the Morning Star not endowed the girl with his Signature Shield.
Overlooking the two Mages each nestled in their barriers, Gwen’s Stag-monster placidly loomed. It had lost a layer of its chitinous exoskeleton to the sonic blast, though its expressionless head showed no acknowledgement of being flayed.
Of greater interest to Luo, was the fact that the Stag had shielded Gwen with half of its body, forming a make-shift barrier with its protruding tendrils, one of which had broken off, obliterated by Ellen’s innate ability.
“Are you alright, Gwen?” the Dean enquired. It was his duty, after all, to ensure that the students were safe.
“Yessir.” Gwen brushed off a few motes of plaster.
The office was in ruins.
Gwen pondered if there was a ‘Reparo!’ Charm the Dean could use.
“CAO!” Dean Luo approached his obliterated alcohol cabinet. “My four-decade single-malt! ELLEEEEEN?!”
“I am terribly sorry, Sir.” Gwen shared the heart-rending suffering of the Dean; she could smell the sickly sweet scent half a room away.
“It’s not your fault, Gwen.” Luo held a shard of shattered crystal in his hand, his face a mask of devastation. “I wasn’t ready for Caliban’s prehensile friendliness either. It was probably too much to expect Ellen, whose instinct was fight or flight, to rationally assess both context and circumstance. Let that be a lesson! Many young Mages freshly endowed with Spirits think that the IFF is universal, but it is correlated with the Spirit's innate erudition.”
Gwen stood awkwardly beside the Dean as he made an increasingly grim assessment of his historical office. The walls were warded, the windows shielded, but not so his collection of baubles and curio that he had put up for flavour.
The Dean dug out a shredded manila folder.
“I had your results here as well,” Luo lamented. "I was going to commend you on achieving your first H.D average. Well done, Miss Song."
He handed her a pile of mangled paper.
“…” Gwen expressionlessly received the tattered shreds in her hands. Stoically, she stowed them in her ring. "Thank you, Sir."
The Dean beamed happily.
“Thank you for coming in, Gwen. I eagerly await your participation in the 2004 IIUC in August.”
Speaking of the IIUC, Gwen raised a hand.
"Yes, Miss Song?"
"How did the current group of students progress, Sir? There's been nothing in the Student Paper."
The Dean's expression fell.
"The field of competition is rather stiff, I am afraid," Luo lamented. "Fudan was knocked out in round 2. It happened while you were away. We've decided not to make too much of a fuss, you know, student morale and all that."
"That's unfortunate, Sir."
"Unfortunate is the right word," Luo continued. "They were up against the regional champions from last year, the team from Kyoto University. I am ashamed to say that Fudan lost fair and square. Outmatched, if you will. Nippon's Shikigami's nothing to scoff at; alas, we had a good crop this year, but..."
Gwen felt the Dean's feverish gaze rest against her face.
"... next year, with you - and I am hoping Mr Huang, a few talented third-years, and a roster of support Mages, there will be an underdog uprising."
"Of course, Sir," Gwen extended a delicate white hand. "I am from Australia, where the underdog always wins."
"That's what I'd like to hear!" The Dean laughed heartily.
The two shook firmly, her draconic-essence turning Gwen's supple fingers into an iron vice.
"Let me know if there's anything you need, or if anyone troubles you." The Dean flexed his tenderised hand contemplatively.
“Thank you, Sir.”
“Enjoy the rest of your day, Miss Song."
Gwen bowed, then exited the Dean's office.
Already, there were several staff members gathered outside, wondering what had happened.
“Is he injured?” One faculty member asked eagerly. “Maybe out of commission?”
Gwen regarded the gathering of old men surrounding her with wonder. What she saw on their face wasn't worry, but expectation and vain hope.
“No, the Dean is fine,” she informed them.
“What a waste of time.”
“That man's a cockroach.”
The various Chairs and Heads of Fudan's faculties dispersed.
Behind her, Dean Luo despairingly picked up the pieces.
"Ellen." She heard him say to his re-summoned Familiar. "Tell the Chair of Abjuration and the Bursar that I need another copy of their reports on my desk by this afternoon..."
Outside, Gwen was met by Magus Kumiko, who’d had also been summoned by the Dean on short notice.
“Shall we?” The Magus was apparently in the middle of something before the Dean demanded her immediate presence. Her face was anything but willing.
“I can wait,” Gwen offered. She could use a breather as well.
Kumiko shook her head.
“No need. It’s best we keep your health up.” She smiled graciously, though her eyes suggested otherwise. “Not to mention I want to see this Kirin of yours. Did you know that in my country, we worship them?”
“Uh-huh… Yes, Grandfather. Percy will be safer than my personal portfolio. Yes, Lulan and Kusu will be joining us- No, of course, not…. What’s a portfolio? It's- Look, I’ll take a spell in the gut before he loses a single hair, haha… Alright. Thanks, Yeye - Cheers!”
Gwen dismissed the Message.
“OKAY!” She turned to her companions. “We’re good to go!”
“Sweet.” Richard gave her a thumbs up. “Our Quest is not THAT safe, you know. We're going on an unmapped Dungeon crawl.”
“Ah, he’ll be right.” Gwen chuckled. “Mina and Tao can’t make it, but Babs said she'd load up Petra with healing spells.”
“So who’s coming?” Lulan butted in. “You, Me, Kusu, Richard, Petra, and your brother Percy? Is he cute?”
"Very cute," Gwen joked. "He's a real Lady Kill...er... Uh-HGN!"
Gwen cleared her throat awkwardly and took a sip of water.
Petra rolled her eyes at her cousin's unintended slip.
“I understand rearing the younger members of your House.” Kusu put his mind on the table. “What if he receives a mortal injury? Are you sure bringing an Acolyte is the best course of action?”
“Bringing Percy is indeed the best course of action,” Richard interjected. “When Gwen has Percy with her, there’s a convergence of stars. Creatures will start dropping Cores more often than not.”
“…” Kusu regarded Richard with scepticism. He knew Richard always gave Gwen what she wanted; endangering her brother and creating a hassle for the Adventuring Party was unlike the efficiency-obsessed workaholic.
“That’s amazing.” Lulan’s ochre-amber eyes sparkled.
“That makes no sense,” Kusu pointed out.
“Well, you’ll have to trust me." Richard grinned at Kusu. "When have I ever disappointed."
"..." Kusu conceded that thus far, Richard had been their saviour in more ways than Gwen, who had abandoned the siblings like a wealthy step-mother with endless social commitments.
"Look, if we want to do this easy, there's not much to gain. The bounty is 500 HDMs, with 200 CCs shared amongst the members, with a bonus 2 CC for every monkey we eradicate. Assuming we kill say, two hundred Water-Ghosts and some big bugger at the end, that's 620 CCs, tops. That's a hundred odd CCs, but what about the HDMs? Even if Gwen doesn't need her share and Percy forfeits his, that's 125 among the four of us. Barely enough to pay for our training! What we need is a real source of income, and that's where the Cores come in..."
“Jesus, we don’t have to stow the corpses, do we?” Gwen remarked. “I use my Storage Ring for food…”
“We can use mine.” Lulan flashed her ring finger. “I got a Large one as well. Usually, I do the butchering in the party.”
“They’re all yours.” Gwen grimaced, picturing Lulan hacking happily away at a mountain of corpses, giggling maniacally. The very idea that a hundred odd eyeballs, scalps, and other ‘materials’ could be kept together with her Spam and Shin-Ramen was abhorrent, not to mention she kept her outfits in the same pocket space!
“When do you want to go?”
Gwen counted the days.
Currently, it was Wednesday night.
She could arguably squeeze out a ‘Hound Pack’ by Sunday. Ever since Gunther had told her that Ariel could lead the pack, she had been looking forward to it.
“How about we leave Sunday, first thing?” Gwen suggested to the party. “Richard, you’ll be leading, right?”
“I'd say so. I know the area, the people and the lay of the land,” Richard addressed her question with confidence. “Passenger trains are usually booked out well in advance though. We'll hitch a free ride on the express Cargo-trains heading that way with the NoM labourers.”
“The NoMs don't mind?" Gwen asked.
“I’d say the NoMs are far happier for it.” Richard chuckled. “Imagine getting ambushed by some critters in the countryside. Wouldn’t you want a team of crack Mages sitting next to you when that happens, rather than rely on the train's armoured engine to plough through blood and bone?”
“Right, of course.” Gwen nodded sheepishly. “Sunday?”
“Lulu? Kusu?” Richard turned to the others.
“I should be alright for a few days. How long do you think?”
“A few days sounds about right.” Richard cocked his head. “I’d say our itinerary is as follows: Get to Nantong. Get our passes stamped. Go to the site. Clear the lair over two days. Return with our ill-gotten gains. Be back by Wednesday evening. If anyone wants to check out the Nantong District, we can stay longer, but there’s not much to see. It's all construction at the moment.”
“I’ll ask for Monday to Thursday off,” Petra concurred. “A sound plan, Richard.”
“I got nothing,” Gwen approved. “Give me three days to get Morden’s Hound and Hound-Pack running. I want to show you guys something extraordinary, haha.”
“Ooo!” Lulan gushed. “How many dogs can you summon?”
“No idea.” Gwen laughed. “We’ll see!”
Gwen laid in bed, wide awake, thinking about dogs.
Would her dogs look like basset hounds? Dachshunds? Or perhaps Rottweilers? In her old world childhood, she had a Maltese-Shitzu. But in the heart of hearts, she had always fancied something bigger and more huggable, like a Golden - or something incredibly handsome, like a Weimaraner.
Bloodhounds are hunting dogs, Gwen theorised, they would probably be Weimaraner-like dogs with long, lithe limbs and powerful upper bodies.
Other than field-testing her Hounds, the trip was an excellent opportunity to gauge her future spell list.
In her mind, there were THREE scenarios a Combat Mage would face on the regular:
The first was a Mage's primary vocation - the defence of Human life and property against Magical Creatures. A successful Mage must possess the means to contribute to the extinction of threats to human cities via fire and fury. She was, Gwen proudly confessed, rather good at this.
The second was the expansion of Human-held territory: this involved clearing Dungeons, ones with actual Cores, as well as lairs, pseudo-Dungeons with powerful monsters. Arguably, Gwen had experience in both. What she had not undertaken was a Purge, Yue’s mainstay.
The third was duels - A.K.A contests of ego. Though entirely futile and even counterproductive to the wellbeing of the Human Race, it was a necessary evil to attain prestige and power amongst Mage kind.
Most Mages were specialised for one purpose or another.
But she was unashamedly unique.
Gwen felt narcissistic to the core, but there was no denying the truth.
She had a solid if unimaginative defence.
She was working on additional mobility.
She had arguably absurd damage-per-spell.
And soon, incredible AOE potential, thanks to Ariel’s IFF.
AND she had stamina, both physically, mentally, and in the magical sense.
In other words, she possessed the looks, the will and the way to assume the mantle of a particular protagonist, all she needed was Chris and Liam Hemsworth fighting over her disinterested affection, and invent a catchy whistling jingo.
In her esteemed opinion, the best way forward was to have a baseline tactic, augmented by unilateral access to secondary Schools of Magic.
Conjuration would form the basis of her Spellbook.
Arguably, she was already a Creature Mage through and through.
Some spells, such as Warding Bolt and Tentacles could be doubled up.
Call Lightning she didn’t dare, for the spell attacked her targets indiscriminately. The last thing she wanted was someone yelling out ‘I yield!’ - then taking a randomised Bolt to the face.
Furthermore, with increased proficiency in Conjuration, she could also add Planar Ally to that number, bringing her concurrently active spells to eight, excluding her Familiars. Of course, spell fatigue was a thing, and only so many effects were dumb-fire or seeking, but milling an opposing Mage down to the stump as she had done with Golos was a solid strategy.
For Monster Hunting, she would augment her Conjuration with Evocation AOEs and Divination such as Hunter’s Mark and True Strike.
As for Abjuration, she would pick up Resistance and Mage Armour, then augment her abilities with Magical Items. There were single-use items such as Shielding Pebbles that expended themselves as reactive barriers. She could additionally invest in a suit of Combat-leather, something akin to what Golos had destroyed.
If she could push Conjuration to such a point that Dimension Door was at-will and near-instantaneous, survival was guaranteed, especially considering her possession of Gunther’s ring.
As for the rest, mastery was a matter of time.
Additionally, perhaps as a side project, she wanted to hash out Illusion with Tao. Even if she had no intent to use Illusion in combat, she could likely manage a few of the Lesser Image spells to bring to life a few exciting and notable elements from her old world. Ideally, she would like to deliver a few killer TED Talks.
Having mapped out her mind, Gwen welcomed the embrace of Hypnos.
Upper-campus Training Hall.
“Miss Song!” A member of the administrative staff accosted Gwen before she could swipe into one of the student training rooms. “There is a Warded Staff Room reserved for your use."
"Oh? Sure!" Gwen replied happily, not one to say no to privilege!
The room had been left for her at the Dean’s behest. Now that Fudan was no longer catering to its disappointing 2003 team, the Dean was free to splurge on more hopeful ventures.
It was probably the tentacle slap, Gwen supposed. Caliban's tentacle slap must have left a deep impression.
Inside, Gwen marvelled at the spacious sanctum. It was one of the larger staff rooms, second only to the one Wen had employed. Furthermore, the room had an inbuild Cognisance Chamber which she could peruse at her leisure, drastically saving the time she would have spent on introspection and meditation.
"Alright, let's do this!" The echo of Gwen's voice answered her.
She retrieved the two scrolls from her Storage Ring, opening them side-by-side.
The tier 5 Morden’s Bloodhound originally involving 48 Major and 33 Minor Incantations.
After augmentation with her Master’s Signature Morden’s Hound, it now involved 72 Major Incantations and only 9 minor incantations, significantly pushing up the casting time. Furthermore, the somatic component involved drawing a glyph in the air, a segment taken from her Master’s variation.
Observing herself in the reflection below, Gwen replicated the incantation, mouthing each movement to achieve a better understanding of the spell's somatic and verbal orientation.
She ran the routine a dozen times, taking just over an hour.
With practice and expertise, thirty seconds of continuous casting was needed to manifest Morden's Bloodhound. In a team battle, it was entirely viable. A 1v1 was much harder to say.
Still, she was satisfied. How can a Creature Mage not be when watching an enormous Quasi-Draconic Deerhound sporting with Ariel?
She inspected its superior physicality with a critical eye.
The Deerhound portion she could understand.
It stood to reason that a Scottish Arch-Mage who hunted Giant-kin would conjure the most iconic quasi-magical canine of his homeland as his 'Bloodhound'.
As for Gwen, her 'creature' was abstractly dog-like.
A casual observer would happily note from afar that indeed, this was a Deerhound - until the creature came closer, at which point they would freak. Curious enquiries would beg uncomfortable answers.
Why does your dog have a lizard tail?
What's with the crested, scaly brow?
Where did its tapered cobra snout come from?
How did you get a bitch to mate with a Draconic-beast without it being eaten?
With supernatural grace, her Draconic-Deerhound landed on all fours. It possessed a noble mien, handsome like an old-timer gent, sporting a spindly coat of white-fur tinged with mottled cobalt highlights. Its ears, strangely, were pointed backwards, resembling twin-horns, twitching back and forth as it listened for her command. The Deerhound's form was sleek like that of a greyhound but heavily muscled in the chest and legs. As with Ariel, it had a white mane running the length of its spine, though ending with a whippet’s tail, barbed with carapace.
And it was huge, standing on its hind legs, the Deerhound was taller than Gwen.
She had pondered giving the dog and all her subsequent conjurations names until she unsummoned the creature, then practised summoning it again. When Morden's Bloodhound re-emerged, it wasn't the same. It was stockier the second time and sans brow ridges.
That's what she had called the last one.
The dog came to her, but without evidence of self-awareness.
Alas, the Deerhounds were neither summoned beings nor manifestations of her animus.
They were temporary elemental phenomena coaxed into existence.
“Eeee!” Ariel commanded the creature at Gwen’s behest, relaying her mental commands.
It could offer its hand, and Gwen could safely rest her hand between its jaws. The Deerhound was wholly obedient and happily self-destructive if need be.
“Guess I’ll be calling you guys by the number,” she remarked with disappointment, having imagined herself at the head of a pack of sled dogs. She had hoped to christen them with names like Buck and Old Jack and Silver and White Fang.
Bummed by reality, Gwen took a break for lunch.
Outside, she was joined by an old familiar face: Instructor Chen Hufei, the senior Magma Mage with a Salamander Spirit.
“Sir!” Gwen bowed her head, showing respect and meaning it. Master Chen had taught her everything she knew about keeping her creatures safely out and about in public.
“What’s this I hear about a Kirin?” Chen folded his arms. “You went to Huangshan, didn't you?”
“I am not at liberty to say,” Gwen addressed the old veteran’s blunt enquiry evasively. She respected her cynical Instructor, but the buck stopped at anything relating to her family's secrets. “I can show you Ariel's new form though. First of all, it's not a Kirin…”
“A pseudo-Kirin.” Chen grunted. “Meaning Draconic Essence. What did you and the Ash Bringer kill? You're not going to bring Hangzhou trouble, are you?”
“No, Sir," Gwen answered defensively. "You knew I was with Uncle Jun?”
Chen grumbled annoyedly.
“Dean called me in this morning. Told me to check up on you, so here I am,” her Instructor explained. “As for the Ash Bringer, we’ve met a few times on the Front, before I retired from combat tours. Can I see your Familiar then? Is now a good time?”
“Of course, Sir.” Gwen smiled sweetly. “I could indeed use some advice with a few of my new Creature spells.”
The stoic Chen nodded, making for the door.
“I have a Staff Room booked.” Gwen directed him to the right.
“Luo’s giving it his all, eh?” Chen scoffed. “You better not disappoint come August.”
Gwen informed her Instructor that he would be well-satisfied.
The two of them re-entered the private sanctum.
“Alright, show me what you’ve got.”
Gwen brought out Ariel and introduced her new Kirin-Marten’s forms.
“Fascinating.” Chen ran a hand through Ariel’s undercoat.
Unexpectedly, Ariel began to purr thunderously, emitting the loudest, most heart-melting thrum imaginable.
“Ha, still got it.” Chen parted Ariel’s spiky mane and pointed to a protruding nub of flesh. “Flying Draconids tend to have a ‘reverse’ ridge where their shoulders and wings meet. Your pseudo-Kirin’s got Winged Dragon-essence, from the looks of it. I take it you and the Captain took down one of the Yinglong’s spawn and got lucky with the Core?”
“Something like that,” Gwen confessed. “I thought most Familiars couldn’t consume Cores to evolve themselves, Sir.”
“You’re running a Signature Conjuration by Henry Kilroy.” Chen shrugged. “And no. You can't. Don't ask me though. I am just an old soldier. I can tell you where Ariel likes a scratch, but I can’t tell you why it can eat Dragon Cores.”
Gwen gave Ariel’s hidden ‘nub’ a little pat as well, eliciting a chest-rumbling purr from her marten.
“I am also working on this new spell, Sir.”
Gwen showed Chen her scroll for Morden’s Bloodhound.
“Mao’s tomb! You’ve bought the augmented variation already?” Chen regarded her with disbelief. “Damned thing cost me 94 CCs just the other week!”
So Chen was one of the many Mages who contributed to her CC-pool. Gwen felt guilty that she was doubly benefiting from the Instructor.
“I’ve got the Hound Pack as well, Sir.”
If Chen had been toking on a cigarette, he would probably be having a coughing fit.
“The two of them together would be 240 CCs,” the Creature Mage remarked. Like the Dean, her Instructor paced around Gwen, inspecting her for wounds or some other signs of doubtful competence, even a torn sleeve or a mote of dust on her shoes would do. Finding none, he scratched his head.
“You’ve done how many quests?”
“Ahahaha…” Gwen laughed cringingly. “None… Sir…”
Her Instructor's inquisitive mien fell away, revealing the gruff old sergeant who loathed young Missus and Masters. From the look in Chen’s eyes, his opinion of her as a hard-working, down to earth straggler from the Frontier was curdling like sour milk.
“So, what’d you want to know.” Chen’s raspy voice grew annoyed and impatient. The old soldier was anything but brutally honest. "I got places to be."
Gwen wondered if it was worth explaining herself.
“I would like to know…” Gwen tried to think of a better way to phrase her enquiry as to not appear to humble-brag. “What I should do after I’ve summoned a pack of Draconic Deerhounds… Ariel’s a Spirit now so it can command them via telepathy…”
“D-Draconic Deerhounds?!” Chen's bark made her flinch.
"Ariel's a SPIRIT?"
“You found a draconic SPIRIT core?"
"What did you kill on Huangshan? What tier?"
"Is Hangzhou on fire? Did they censor the news?"
If expressions could kill, Gwen swallowed nervously, Chen would have triggered her Contingency Ring.