Metaworld Chronicles

by

Wutosama

Chapter 210 - Six Degrees of Separation

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Gwen quickly explained that not only was everything 'cool', but the matter also had been blessed by the highest echelons of the Party.

“You expect me to believe that a girl of eighteen…”

“Seventeen, Sir-”

Chen glared at Gwen, who bit her tongue.

“…seventeen - possessing TWO unique Familiars convoked via a Signature Familiar Conjuration, now imbued with a Draconic Spirit, met face to face with the Secretary-General of the CCDI - is a nobody from that vast and empty final Frontier?”

“You forgot tier 6 Lightning, Sir.” Gwen went for broke. At this point, she may as well buckle up and break-in Chen entirely.

Chen pinched the bridge of his brow while breathing dejectedly.

“Fine, show me.”

“I haven’t succeeded manifesting Morden’s Hound Pack yet, Sir,” Gwen confessed. “Can you teach me?”

Chen glanced at the exit, then back at Gwen's sweetly smiling face.

“Are you using the augmented variant?” the old soldier relented.

“Yessir.”

“Operator!” Chen Messaged the front desk. “Cognisance overlay, Instruction Mode, charge the crystals to the Dean’s account.”

The floors thrummed as the inbuilt Cognisance Chamber activated.

“Observe.”

With meticulous care, Chen ran through the necessary verbal and somatic components.

First, her Instructor drew the glyph in the air, leaving behind a sulphur scented imprint akin to a light drawing. Then came the Major incantations, shaping the nascent Magma Mana coursing through his conduits. A steady flow of red-hot arcane-energy filled the glyph.

“Hound Pack!”

Chen finished off with the minor incantations in a flurry, concluding with a flourish. The entire process took just over two minutes.

A magma-hound slipped into existence, a little smaller than Gwen’s Deerhound, less defined and far more abstract. It was more exact to say that rather than any specific breed, Chen’s animal was a ‘dog-like’ elemental.

Then another.
And another.
Until nine of the hounds were lined up, one after the other, smouldering gently as their Magma-enriched skin sizzled the air, filling the limited space of the practice room with eye-watering sulphur.

“Gust!”

A low-level Evocation ensured both student and Instructor would avoid asphyxiation by monoxide.

“Sir,” Gwen pointed out. “Your dogs, they’re a little different from mine.”

“That's because I am not a Transmuter.” Chen ordered the dogs to form into two rows. “Conjured creatures are altered by a Mage's affinity with other Schools of magic, your elemental affinity, and any other factors that may influence your Astral Body.”

Gwen thought of her Abjuration, her Transmutation and her other Sigils - there was also the fact that her Astral body had three ‘elements’: Lightning, Void, and her Almudj’s Essence.

“Transmutation gives definition and flexibility in form,” Chen continued. “Abjuration gives greater toughness and resistance. Evocation boosts your creature’s elemental attack. Enchantment gives resistance to glamour, while Illusion bolsters Familiars or Spirits attuned with obfuscation abilities.”

“So... just like how a Healer's Familiar can deliver AOE healing?” Gwen pointed out, thinking of Kumiko’s lesser Spirit Familiar, Onibi.

“Not always, but yes, in addition to self-regeneration. Also, if you ever see a Necromantic Conjurer, they have the most infamous Familiar ability of all.”

Gwen was all ears.

“Life-drain and Vampirism,” Chen stated grimly. “We had to fight them a while back on the Front. Let’s just say it took a Creature Mage to fight a Creature Mage. As the Abjurers found out, you can Banish a flock of Corpse Crows, but you can’t unsummon the decomposing body of a risen Behemoth Beast.”

“God, that sounds awful…”

“More than you can imagine,” Chen snorted, his mood improving. “But they burn all the same. With your Lightning, that would be a sight to see!”

“I am glad to hear that.” Ariel's abilities were a battlefield shoo-in, but Gwen had little faith that Caliban’s Consume wouldn’t be mistaken for Necromancy. The effects were eeriely similar, after all.

Chen unsummoned the hounds.

“Can you keep up? Shall I slow down?”

Gwen replayed Chen’s incantation in her mind, then shook her head slowly.

“I’ll give it a go,” she assured the Instructor.

Chen’s scoffed with cynicism.

Gwen stood back from her Instructor and imitated his stance down to the last inch. Having Chen beside her amidst the glow of a Cognisance Chamber reminded her of how Henry used to teach her the same way. Back then, her theory work had been so lacklustre that all she could do was to parrot her Master’s flow of mana. It was funny that despite possessing no knowledge of advanced Conjuration theory, she could Dimension Door back and forth like a seasoned veteran.

Watching a tidal flood of mana circulate through Gwen's Astral Form, Chen squinted, a smirk touching his wizened old face. With an Astral Body like that, Chen speculated, no wonder the Dean was up in arms.

“First!” Gwen's Instructor began. “We inscribe the Glyph…”

 

 

Gwen alternated between Faithful Hound, Blood Hound, and Hound Pack over the next few days, readying herself for the monster lair ahead. Thanks to Chen’s timely intervention, she averted a process of precariously experimenting with delivery and cadence.

The result was that after three days, she could wrangle a tier 5 Bloodhound with absolute confidence. As for the Hound Pack, she managed the tier 6 spell with a one-in-three chance of success.

That was where her VMI, combined with her Lightning affinity, met in beautiful confluence.

A run of the mill Senior Mage casting tier 6 spells usually rocked a mana pool of 60-100 odd VMI. Intuitively, Gwen felt that a pack of Bloodhounds cost her about one-seventh of her 230-odd mana pool. In the event of spell failure, she suffered nothing worse than a headache. Had she been the aforementioned Senior Mage, a feedback-loop exceeding half of one’s maximum allowance would have knocked her out cold.

And so, Gwen added resistance to spell-failure to her accumulative list of advantages. Considering that her first Magic Missile had her vomiting all over the rooftop, it was comical that she could now shake off catastrophic fuck-ups with a smile and a catnap.

With this in mind, Gwen noted that her Evocation could use a dose of hyper-tier magical training as well. Boosting her Evocation to 5 would up her direct-damage and the damage of Ariel's spell-channelling. Mayhap, Gwen conceived deviously; she could coax the Dean into sending her Magus Young for a few serendipitous lessons on Blizzard and other Evocation staples.

 

 

Sunday Morning, the crew assembled.

Richard, Lulan, Kusu, Petra, Percy and Gwen herself lined up outside Guoding B1.

“GEAR CHECK!” Richard inspected his troops.

Gwen reported that she had a full complement of potions and clothing, including her elementally-attuned skin suit and Boots of Flying, as well as her Portable Habitat. For her casual attire, she had picked out a black skort to go with her thigh-high boots, paired with a tapered quarter-sleeve top.

Beside her was Percy, hand-delivered by an anxious Guo first thing in the morning. Her young man wore military cargo pants in the PLA style, likely chosen by their Grandfather, and a dark t-shirt tapered to his waist and shoulders. His boyish face had taken on a masculine likeness of their father, oozing smugness. Though half-a-head shorter than Gwen, Percy carried himself with quiet competence.

Lulan's expressive eyes flittered from Percy to Gwen, then back again, stroking her chin as she pondered Percy's lady-killing proficiency.

“I’ve got potions and supplies in my Storage Ring,” Percy rattled off a list of must-have items, feeling neurotic as one of Gwen's companions licked him from head to toe like a piece of meat. “Grandfather got me a localised Contingency Ring as well, so I wouldn't be in mortal danger.”

Gwen inspected the glamoured band on Percy's finger, noting its simplicity. As Magus Maymaruya had explained it, two factors determined a Teleportation Ring's worth. Mechanically, the denser the Core, the further the Teleportation. Contractually, the more influential the patron of the commission, the more Towers were willing to accept the Ring's displaced owner. Gunther's Asscher-cut Contingency Ring worked almost anywhere in the world, provided she wasn’t stuck in Antarctica.

By that same note, Gwen wondered if the Towers had ever found an elegant solution to the method of infiltration used by Elizabeth Sobel. Considering that she had received no CCs for exposing the loophole, the solution was likely highly censured. In fact, it made sense to expunge the news, as a unilateral voiding of Contingency contracts would suddenly imperil countless Magisters, Maguses and their precious Acolytes.

“... Cure Moderate, 3 Restorations, 2 Cure Serious, Antidote, all Cubed,” Petra ran through her inventory with Richard. “I’ll be leaving damage-dealing to Gwen and Lulu.”

“That’s fine.” Richard made sure Petra had at least a few spells left to protect herself.

“I got potions and myself,” Lulan announced proudly.

“I’ve got her supplies, her change of clothes, and our food.” Kusu flashed his 'medium' storage ring. “Lulan brought her bike... and a bed.”

“Hey, I like my bike, and I can't sleep without my mattress! AND I have to leave room for the loot!”

“You don’t need a bike in the Dungeon! Gwen's got beds in her Habitat!”

Richard left the siblings to bicker.

Mayuree stood on the sidelines, moping miserably. She had wanted to come, but the House of M had forbidden her from needless danger. As a countermeasure, Gwen took a Teleportation beacon with her so that should the need arise, Mayuree could immediately be within her vicinity. Richard applauded the idea as well, stating that the beacon also served as a contingency for the party, who could always call upon Mayuree for aid should the Quest proceed poorly.

"I think we're good." Richard nodded at Gwen.

“ALRIGHT, gang!” Gwen declared. “To the public bus!”

 

 

The 'gang' alighted from the bus at Hongqiao Transit Station.

As Richard had promised, their early morning ride out to Nantong was via a freight train. After having their Student I.D’s recorded and their passes stamped, the crew boarded a fifty-segment freight-mover stretching from horizon to horizon.

They were joined by a company of labourers who immediately displaced themselves, making space for Gwen’s party.

“Ju!” Richard called out to the foreman. “Tell the men to be at ease.”

“Mr Huang!” A man in his fifties approached the group. The two men clasped hands. “Good to see you again, Sir.”

Once Gwen and her companions settled, the displaced crowd came closer. The men’s demeanour was equal parts wariness and curiosity, surprised by the unexpected visitation of three delectable beauties.

Richard conversed with the Foreman, laughing and slapping the wry old labourer on the back. Behind the girls, Kusu joined the group.

“…”
“…”
“Hey, boy!”

Kusu pointed a finger toward himself.

“Yeah you, what are you doing! Come over here! Don’t bother the Mage ladies!”

Kusu felt incredulous - until he looked down.
Desiring anonymity and low on crystals, Kusu wore no-name khaki pants, an unbranded t-shirt, and a jacket he’d picked up from the local market.

Contrastingly, Petra wore a bright-red Mizuno parka over yoga pants. His sister wore a sundress, the style Gwen liked, mismatched with combat boots. Gwen looked as though she was going for a magazine spread, and Percy wore PLA surplus in aerial sky-camo.

Without any distinguishing peculiarities, it was no wonder the labourers thought he was one of them - they were wearing the same style, though theirs were far shabbier.

One of the NoMs helpfully drew him aside.

“Don’t get too close,” the old man kindly advised, pulling Kusu behind him. “Let Foreman Hung deal with Sir Huang.”

The girls stared at Kusu, making him even more self-conscious.

Sequestered from his companions by sheer good will, Kusu wanted to weep.

Gwen snorted.

Possessing a sharp eye for fashion; the NoMs' misunderstanding was immediately apparent. Her mirth quickly infected the other girls, filling the carriage with giggles.

"Oi, I think they like you." One of the middle-aged men nudged Kusu in the ribs. "Don't try anything though, enjoy the view while it lasts."

One by one Richard introduced his party.

“Oh! The Flower of Fudan!” one of the workmen blurted out before someone dragged him back into the crowd.

Petra nodded imperceptibly.

Upon reaching Kusu, Richard passed over the hopeful young man with complete nonchalance.

"!"

Kusu wanted to call out, but the friendly labourers dragged him into their midst. Clearly, the hot-headed lad had gone 'must' and had to be restrained.

When Richard finished introducing Gwen, who curtseyed and waved, the crowd fell eerily quiet.

“Hello.” Gwen gave them a blindingly dazzling smile. "I am Gwen Song."

“Where’s her Worm?” someone whispered.
“What Worm?”
“She’s famous for having this giant Worm following her.”
“It eats her enemies!”
“Alive, the bones and all.”
“Woa…”

It was now Gwen's turn to be incredulous.
How was it possible that a group of NoM labourers knew about her Caliban? Had she reached that rare stratum of fame where everymen NoMs knew who she was? Would she now need to wear Gucci shades everywhere she went?

She waved at the workers, hoping to appear approachable and amiable.
As one, the workers backed away.

“Careful!” A hand took Kusu by the wrist and yanked him back yet again. “She’s a dangerous one, that one. Sir Huang says she eats Monsters and Rogue Mages for breakfast. You wouldn’t want to offend her now.”

“I am a Mage, actually,” Kusu informed his helpful companion, his face growing desperate. “I am with her.”

The old man sagaciously patted his shoulder.

“Young man, I was young like you once, but a young buck needs to know his limits. That girl might look like a million HDMs, but let me tell ya, a lass like that will gobble you for so much as staring at her the wrong way. You think they call her the Worm Handler as a joke? She’s a Maneater.”

Gwen froze, hoping that her ears had deceived her.
Possessing unusually acute hearing was both a boon and a curse.

Did the NoM just call her a 'Worm-Handler'? What the fuck was a WORM HANDLER?

At that moment, sensing the tense atmosphere, Foreman Hung split from the group and shook the team’s hand one by one, sans Kusu.

“I’ll be in your care,” the Foreman informed Gwen. “You too, Young Master Percy.”

“Likewise,” the siblings replied.

“We’ll be over yonder.” Richard directed his team away from the NoMs. Gwen was likely fine interacting with the labourers, but Percy, Lulan and the others usually had little to no contact with the common people. Lulan especially was too thin-skinned and thick-headed to stomach the ill-humour of the labourers.

The train departed, its armoured engine core sending a thrumming, chest-thumping vibration through the parallel rails, ponderously picking up speed.

Though the train was used for freight, there was enough space cleared for the Mages to make up a comfortable abode for the four hours it took to travel to Nantong.

The party made themselves comfortable with an assortment of packets and wedged canvases, then settled down to snacks and chit-chatter.

Richard popped a sour plum into his mouth. Puckering his lips, he watched Lulan, Percy and Gwen make small talk beside a heavy slab of transmuted steel.

Petra closed her eyes and meditated.

Percy looked outside the cabin, enjoying the quickening scene of the countryside.

“Say…” The boy looked around, feeling that something was amiss. “Where’s Kusu?”

 

 

“REALLY?!” Kusu listened to the old men’s flights of fancy, caught in the revelry of their blustery anecdotes.

“Truly.” One of the middle-aged men passed him a cigarette, which Kusu accepted out of politeness. Another man helpfully lit the soggy tobacco stick.

“I heard from folks living in the Districts that the Worm Handler cleared out a whole level in D-109,” the original speaker continued. “Broke through the gate, she did, rammed right in there, worm and all. Massacred her way through the outer perimeter.”

“Blood, guts, bodies all over the place. That worm left nothing alive.” Another joined in. "I hear that her Worm grows larger with every man it eats."

“That can't be right. I heard the Handler was on the hunt for a man-eating Carrion worm,” someone attempted to correct the fake news disseminated by the first.

“Naw,” a third spoke as though he’d witnessed the bloody ordeal vis-a-vis. “I have it on good authority that she’s taming them. That’s why she’s the Worm Handler, see? She tames worms and uses them for her foul magic. I hear she rides em too.”

"Ah, yeah."
"That makes sense."
"Mao, the gall!"
"What, like, clutched between her legs?"

“I don't think that's right?” Kusu swallowed nervously. Why was it that Gwen’s exploits around the ‘out wall’ sounded exactly like what Lulan had done? Furthermore, the thought of Gwen riding on Caliban, her white thighs straddling its girth, combined with her usual perchance for skirts, was heating his face like a furnace.

“Yeah, she’s a real fatal female, she is,” the first man utterly sagely, borrowing a word he’d gleaned from a book once. “Don’t let her pretty face trick you, she’s a man gobbler.”

“I don’t think that means what you think it means.” Kusu scanned his company of grinning NoMs nervously. “Maybe a better choice of words would be wise.”

“How about the Swa-”

“NOOOO!” Kusu stood. “Alright, it’s nice talking to all of you. I have to go.”

“What’s a good one then, eh? All the great Mages got nicknames!”

Kusu paused.

A vision of Gwen devouring half her bodyweight’s worth of vitality-rich ingredients flashed across in his inward eye. That was during yesterday's lunch, and two days ago at dinner, and...

“How about…” The words came to his lips unbidden. “The Devourer?”

 

 

Gwen had wanted to talk to the NoMs on the freight train to ask about their jobs and their living conditions, but the men seemed to have an aversion to her presence.

"Leave them be," Richard advised, a solemn expression on his poker face. "They're just NoMs. They're the same everywhere. Food, shelter, safety, a chance to get better food, shelter, be safer, that sort of thing."

An hour later, the train pulled noisily into Nantong Central Railway Station. Kusu had rejoined them halfway, though the Sword Mage strangely kept to himself.

The primary platform held two lines for passenger trains while the third and fourth was set up with a wide berth for cargo. The NoMs shuffled off the rear carriage and formed a line for inspection by one of the Transport Officials. Not far from the friendly labourers, Gwen and company proceeded unmolested.

“See you on-site, Ju.” Richard waved at the Foreman, who casually saluted him. “Alright everyone, this way.”

The station itself was more akin to an enormous warehouse, with a vaulted ceiling of latticed steel forming a gargantuan oblong shape. After registering with the officials at the checkpoint, they proceeded down a stark corridor which eventually led to the main atrium.

As the double-doors opened, a blast of hot air odious with human sweat blew into the inner terminal. Unlike the station’s interior, the atrium was a hive of human activity. Thousands of NoMs, seemingly all wearing cotton jackets in garish colours and bundled from head to toe with backpacks and other travel accessories, lined the ticket counters a hundred deep, as far as the eye could see.

“It’s gotten worse.” Richard grimaced as he pushed through the crowd. “Gwen, Petra, be careful.”

“Why?” Gwen asked, following her cousin closely.

“You’ll get pick-pocketed,” Richard warned. “Or worse. They can get grabby. The people here are simple folk. The menfolk especially are used to running things, so they don't think much about respect for the women. Added to the fact that until recently, they had rarely seen Mages and certainly not Gweilo, you get the idea.”

“Some guy tried to grope me once,” Lulan stated proudly. “But I didn’t maim him.”

“Thanks to me,” Kusu added annoyedly. “Just be careful. Gwen, I'll take the rear, and Richard take the front. Percy, take the side. You girls can walk between us.”

"That seems excessive," Petra pouted, evidently offended.

“…” Gwen’s thoughts immediately fell to her propensity to attract all kinds of creepy weirdos. Already she could see that their group was drawing eyes from all over. As countless pairs of eyes centred on Gwen, she began to regret not wearing a burka. With her keen perception, Gwen could already sense several figures converging toward them. Am I paranoid? Gwen pondered, or was she merely once molested, twice shy?

“!”

Her Divination pinged.

For once, her foresight affirmed the need to take immediate action.

“Caliban!”

Her Void worm slithered into existence.

“Shaaa!”

At once, the crowd fell away from the party, overwhelmed by an inherent aura of existential dread. In Caliban's docile form, the vertigo was barely perceptible by her companions. For the NoMs, however, it was as though the circumference surrounding the party had become a bottomless pit.

The tingling in her spine faded.

That’s one crisis averted! Gwen gave herself an imaginary pat on the back. Caliban, the eldritch deterrent of pickpockets and deviants!

“Showing off?” Richard joked as the party sliced through the crowd. “Cali is hardly subtle. The world will know you’re in Nantong.”

“Is that so bad?” Gwen searched the crowd. Everywhere she looked, people averted their gaze.

“Who knows?” Richard shrugged. “You could ask Mayuree to throw some bones.”

“Nah.” Gwen made sure the others followed closely. “Where are we going now?”

“I booked a truck to the site.” Richard indicated to the exterior of the station.

Like all public transit spaces, the entrance to the station was six storeys tall and inundated with red ribbons. Across the top row, Gwen read a sign which said ‘SAFELY EXIT AND ENTER’. On an adjacent banner, she read, ‘MOVE QUIETLY AND ORDERLY’. Closer to the door, she almost did a double take when she came across smaller signage:

‘DO NOT DEFECATE ON THE PLATFORM.”

Her nose wrinkled.

A second sign read:

‘NO PEEING IN THE ATRIUM, USE BATHROOM AT EITHER END.”

“What?” Gwen directed Richard to the warnings. “What happened to the euphemisms? Shouldn’t it say something like ‘public health for all’ and ‘clean environment for you and family’?”

“It’s the countryside.” Richard snorted. “What, you think people have flushing toilets and running water out there? Filtration units don’t grow on trees you know!”

“B-but,” Gwen protested. “You said Nantong was a part of Shanghai’s redistricted outer-zone!”

“Oh, Gwen…” Petra squeezed her squeamish cousin’s hand. “That began only two years ago. The Tonglv Canal’s just started this year.”

Gwen appeared scandalised.
From all she had heard of Nantong and the Nantong Fungs, she was expecting some sort of palace-city. Thank God she came prepared.

Richard laughed out loud.

The massive gates to the station interior slid open.

Humid air rushed in, inundated with a mana miasma so thick that spent particles were visible to the naked eye. Next came the stink of stagnant water, urine, and construction waste. Furthermore, a tidal wave of sound washed over Gwen, the thrumming of earth moving Golems so offensive as to jar her bones.

“WOA!” Percy gazed upward at a massive, vaguely humanoid Construct hoisting piles of rebar onto trucks. A dozen similar Constructs were shifting all sorts of cargo onto flatbeds trailers.

Richard opened his arms expansively, the dust billowing about his ankles.

“Welcome to Nantong!" he shouted above the din. "The fastest growing District in Outer-Shanghai!”

 

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A note from Wutosama

Chapter Ref :: It's said that in this world, we're all related via six degrees of interconnection... 

Bonus ::  Gwen's Outfits (new one added last CH) 
Character Summaries :: Character Summary
Glossary and Magic System :: Glossary

Voting for the novel :: Voting button  

On going Edits - Ch 1 - 10 Done 
 

I reached Rank 10!!! For 10 Minutes!!! 


About the author

Wutosama

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

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