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Once they were outside the station, Richard wandered off to locate his truck driver while the rest of the crew stood under the shade of the colossal transit-station.

Thanks to Caliban, her party remained unmolested by neither paupers nor guards, not even a single beggar accosted them.

“Was it like this the last time you guys came?” Gwen turned to Lulan and Kusu.

“Not as such.” Kusu pointed to the mass of bodies still attempting to press into the station’s interior, stopped only by olive uniformed guards with dangerous looking batons. “It’s getting close to the end of the year, and farm work is winding down. Without jobs here, the NoMs apply for permits to work in Shanghai proper. For these folks, the redistricting of Nantong was a real game changer.”

“How so?” Gwen enquired, full of questions for the curious mass-migration. Most of the llabourers appeared to be men, but there were women too. She even spotted a few children.

“Being included in the Shanghai Special Economics Zone means their Hukou moves up a rug. These guys are no longer rural peasants, haha.” Kusu laughed. “I suppose they’re urban folk now, just look at them!”

Gwen, Percy and Petra 'looked'.

Gwen felt that it was a bit rich coming from Kusu, but the young man was right. The peasant-turned-city folk were all bundled up in their Sunday best. Coming from a redistricted zone like Nantong, this meant that they were indistinguishable from the homeless wandering through Shanghai’s industrial rim.

“We have that in Moscow as well,” Petra chimed in nostalgically. “Outside of the big city, it’s all Frontier: from St Petersburg to Perm and then onto Novosibirsk. Westward of the Eastern line, things are tenable, eastward, there is nothing but Black Zones. Every winter, the rural folk try to get into the cities for safety, warm meals, and menial employment.”

“It’s all Black Zones?” Gwen raised an arched brow. “What, all of Siberia? That's a vast swath of land!”

Petra nodded.

“Are there Dragons?” Gwen persisted out of curiosity. It seemed to her that every country had their dragon-sized problems. If China had a Yinglong, and old Burma had a Tyrant, why not Siberia?

Petra shrugged.

“No one knows. Or at least no one knows who's in the know.” Her companion snickered. “My ex-Master once said that the powers in Moscow had cut a deal with whatever governed its Siberian domain. If rumours were to be believed, I’d say our Baba Yaga is something akin to a Zmei.”

“Is that a type of dragon?”

“I suppose.” Petra raised a hand. Using her palm as a platform, she created a three-headed crystalline Magic Beast half-hydra, half-dragon. “There, that’s a Zmei. The most infamous of which would be Chudo-Yudo, it’s all fascinating and mythic, of course, but unproven.”

“Hey, the Yinglong is very real.”

“Ah~, but Chudo-Yudo hasn’t been seen, not in the flesh, ever.”

“Never been witnessed, you mean. All who sees Chudo-Yudo die!”

“Well, there's that,” Petra conceded.

“Dragons all over, huh?” Gwen noted. "Maybe we're living in the Dragon's world, and Humans are just getting in their way."

“There’s a good reason they’re the universal mythos,” Petra suggested shrewdly. “Name me a culture without a dragon.”

Gwen didn’t know enough to comment.

“Egyptians?” Percy dropped his two cents.

“Oh! Good work!” Gwen patted her brother’s head. Indeed, she couldn’t recall seeing dragons on her trip to Egypt back in the day. No bearded crafter sold draconic memorabilia as far as she knew, and she had browsed Khan El Khalili for days.

“Nope.” Petra grinned with an air of superiority. “Apep the Chaos Serpent. Primarily cobra, partly divine, and most definitely draconic.”

“Bugger.” Percy scratched his head.

The conversation then turned to more mundane matters.

“Caliban, where are you going?” Gwen noticed her serpent tugging at the edge of her mind. Out of curiosity, she followed it rather than recalling her Familiar. "Pats, I'll just be over there."

"Want me to come with?" Percy peeped up.

"Naw, stay with Kusu and Pats."

"Over here, Little Brother, talk with us," Lulan indicated to a spot next to her.

Percy stayed a respectful distance away. He had caught the girl staring several times already, though far from attraction, the feeling he perceived from her was that of an appraiser inspecting a curio.

Gwen meanwhile, stalked her slithering serpent toward a branching street not far from the station. In a few years perhaps, it would likely develop into a trendy, gentrified alleyway full of eateries, though now it was filled with dubious, banged up little shops fronts, half-abandoned and falling to pieces. Some workmen were having lunch, a few other napped, and a group of old men played Chinese checkers.

“Shaa!” Caliban indicated with its snout.

What little activity in the street had instantly ceased, all eyes were turned toward the lithe Mage standing beside her monster by the entrance.

“Caliban, to me,” Gwen commanded.

Her serpent twisted and turned upon itself with surprising agility, coming to a stop beside her ankles.

Her Familiar tugged at her mind. It wanted to go deeper.

With meticulous care, Gwen surveyed the scene.

The crowd looked away wherever she set her gaze, not daring to meet her eyes.

“Shaa! Shaa!” Caliban urged her.

The duo proceeded through the alleyway until they reached the other side.

She was met by the roar of machinery. It was the main street, still under construction.

There had been a crowd of people gathered near a series of box-shaped containers, though now they were staring at her and her monster.

Gwen edged closer.
First, there was a dour odour.
Her monster sniffed the air.

"Shaa!"

Then Gwen saw it.

The spectacle had eluded her at first because there was a huge red banner slung across the cages. The words, embossed in black against the dusty red fabric, read:

PROGRESS AND PROSPERITY, LOWERING CRIME, IMPROVING LIFE.

Earlier, she had wondered why there were no beggars outside the station and had praised Caliban for deterring vagabonds. Now, Gwen found her answer in amidst crate-like enclosures surrounded by an acrid haze of urine and despair.

She had to do a double-take.
People in cages?

A few were men, most were old women, though a few young children were present as well, both boys and girls. A few old men, missing a limb, or two, or otherwise, laid on their backs. The cages were made low, reaching only her waist, forcing the inhabitants to slouch. She wasn’t sure how long they had been in there, but from the looks of their attire and the filth clinging to their soiled clothes, it had been some time.

Outside the cages, just within reach, were begging bowls.

“Shaa!” Caliban wiggled its tail.

Gwen glanced between her Familiar and the beggars. The panhandlers had by now noted her presence, a few of them already reaching for their bowls. Perhaps it was her attire, her transparent display of wealth and comfort, or maybe it was Caliban’s aura, she couldn’t know, but the beggar began to bang their bowls collectively against their iron rails.

‘Clang!’
‘Clang!’ ‘Clang!’
‘Clang!’ ‘C-clang!’ ‘Clang!’
‘Clang!’ ‘C-clang!’ ‘C-clang!’ ‘CLANG!’

An abominable cacophony filled her head.

“SHAAA!” “SHAAA!”

Caliban sang to the music of abject hopelessness and desperation, thrilled by the aberrant dissonance. As for Gwen, she tasted a mouthful of bile. Not even in the hopelessness of D-109 had she seen such a sight as this. Beside her, Caliban’s exhilaration extolled her with an unpleasant thought: that perhaps, the greater mercy for these folks was to answer the call of the void. What was it that had drawn Caliban to this place? Her curiosity was no longer keen for answers.

Without a word, Gwen fled the scene, unsummoning her fiend.

 

 

By the time Gwen rejoined her party, Richard had returned, accompanied by a minivan and a friendly looking labourer.

“The Boss did us a favour,” he informed the party. “I was wondering how we were going to make it on a flat-bed truck, haha.”

His companions filed in one by one. Gwen was the last to arrive.

“Gwen?” Richard noted her pale complexion. “Did you use your Void spells?”

Gwen shook her head.

“I’ll tell you in the van.”

 

 

It took another thirty minutes to get to the mid-section of the Tonglv Canal, where a two-hour hike was required to reach Richard’s Water-Ghost den.

“I see.” Richard remained stoic after Gwen narrated her ordeal.

“This is not unusual,” Petra pointed out. “After January, it’s not entirely surprising to find frozen NoMs in alleyways, even in Shanghai.”

“NoMs die every day.” Lulan put in her two LDMs. “Just in D-109, I knocked off a few by accident.”

Gwen stared at Lulan, struck by the weightlessness of her casual confession.

“She paid a fine,” Kusu iterated. Seeing that Gwen wasn’t sufficiently placated, he added a few more details. “In both HDMs and CCs, as well as future Community Service.”

"I... see." Gwen licked her drying lips. "That's good to know."

"Are you unhappy with the verdict?" Lulan asked, her voice worried and uncertain, far more touched by Gwen's displeasure than the maiming of a dozen civilians.

“Why the sudden pity?” Petra joined the fray, though the Russian beauty's tone was measured and delicate. “Did you not escape from Sydney? I heard as many as ten thousand NoMs, and several hundred Mages perished in that single incident. Assuming they've accounted properly by now, the dead may exceed thirty thousand. In case you've forgotten, during WWII's Beast Tide, NoM casualties came in around 60 million.”

“That's not the same,” Gwen murmured, thinking of the child sitting in a puddle of her wastewater. “The state could help, surely? I am just a little confused as to what the cages imply. Are they being left to die?”

“They’re safer in those cages,” Richard explained patiently.

“Richard!" Gwen snarled. "What?!”

"I think its an elegant solution," Petra stated in that overtly rational manner of hers.

“There were kids in there!” Gwen hollered. “How can babies be criminals?”

“Gwen.” Richard patted her shoulders. He had been seated in the front passenger's seat, but now he turned around. “Nantong is a developing city, and it's going through growing pains. There's a lot of money coming in, skilful labourers from the city, as well as Mages. The folk here are used to abject poverty, so seeing all that wealth pouring in is getting to their heads. For a while now, the city's had a real problem with pickpockets and beggars. Remember those guys from the train? They're from Shanghai; they don't take shit from anyone; those guys know how to operate machinery, they're concreters and sculptors and plumbers and brickies. You think they're vegetarians? Think again. They're honest, hard-working blokes, but you know what? If those labourers caught one of these peasant-beggars red-handed, they would beat the shit out of them, probably to death. If one of those beggars robbed a Mage from Shanghai, no guard is going to save them. By segregating the beggars, everyone's happy. They're safe, and Nantong's beggar free.”

“What?!” Gwen spluttered. “That’s absurd.”

“An absurd truth,” Richard pronounced with nonchalance. He knew his cousin had a soft spot for the destitute and the downtrodden. It was admirable, but also impractical in the extreme. “Chang, what's your take on this?"

"We'd probably break their thieving hands and leave them to the authorities, boss," the driver replied. "Miss, you're kind-hearted, but don't you worry about the trash, leave em to us. They don't want to work, they don't eat. Easy as that."

“I…” Gwen felt as though she was wrestling with an eel. “I don’t know.”

“Don’t dwell on it.” Petra pulled Gwen closer so that Gwen rested her head against her shoulder. Gwen was having another one of her episodes, a curious failing for one so gifted for death-dealing. “It’s nothing. They’re nothing. Think about something else.”

“…”

For the rest of the trip, she instead focused on the rumbling of the mana-engine as the van struggled over the hilly terrain, bouncing and shaking against every groove and divot along the twisted, broken path.

 

 

Tonglv Canal exists for a singular purpose. To streamline freight shipping from Shanghai’s industrial zones to the South China Sea while bypassing the CBD.

Measuring 200 meters across and 90 meters at the thalweg, the yet to be filled man-made valley cut a straight line across the landscape, carving through plains, forests, valleys, hills and wetlands with equal impunity.

When their van first pulled up at the industrial zone, Gwen had thought themselves arrived at the foundation of some epic monument, at the base of which concrete covered every conceivable space. Within the valley, gargantuan golems, a dozen or so each four to five storeys tall, manipulated sheets of criss-crossing rebar or towed cables across the newly established canal.

At its extremity, two dozen Mages of varying talents worked in tandem. Earthen Transmuters shifted soil and stone aside, pulling apart roots and vines from the sub-tropical flora while Translocation Mages turned the debris, simultaneously conjuring away the refuse. Above and beside them, standing on platforms, Evokers blasted away at quasi-magical critters as the freshly excavated earth crashed over the grey ferroconcrete, as well as denotating sections of hardy granite.

“GWEN! Look! It’s a Class III Iron MITSUBISHI Construction Golem!” Percy blurted out, his eyes alive with excitement. “I’ve only ever seen them in Lumen-pics!”

Richard likewise took on an appreciative expression.

Depressed but nonetheless curious, Gwen regarded the lumbering giants labouring below.

Vaguely humanoid, the Golem reminded her of power loaders from the movie Aliens. Standing on iron-wrought stilts and apportioned like a dwarf, the golem was stout of body, with broad, iron-wrought shoulders sporting a plethora of hissing pistons. Painted a comical construction-yellow, it towered over the Mages working below. Just above its shoulders where its head should be was an operator cage, within which was the pilot. Behind the driver's cage was a load-trailer where the golem deposited what was dug up.

“Wow.” Percy was beside himself. “Gwen, are you seeing this?!”

Gwen chuckled, boys and their toys. It was in moments like this that Percy acted his age. As for Gwen, just seeing her brother so filled with exuberance dispelled her earlier ire.

“Sure am.” she placed a hand against her hip. “Richard, do you know any of the drivers?”

“Yeah, I know a few."

"Do you think Percy could take a look inside?"

“I don't see why not." Richard shrugged. “So long as Junior won’t be a menace.”

“I won’t!” Percy turned back to the machines, his eyes gleaming.

Gwen chuckled. Indeed, what fifteen-year-old boy wouldn't be in ecstasy when seated within a full-scale Caterpillar heavy-hauler? These Golems looked like bipedal, humanoid Bagger 288s mated with a Tonka Truck. If she had to draw a pop reference, they reminded her of gritty, 90's cartoon Transformers.

The party watched as the golem knelt with one of its excavator's arm, shoving up to its elbows into the loam. A Transmuter below then collapsed the upper section perfectly into the digger. With a mighty roar of its Japanese-made engine, the giant retreated, taking out a near-perfect rectangle of elementally compressed soil, displacing the load onto the canal’s banks.

Gwen had to admit, watching a ten-meter robot earth-moving had a simple, hypnotic quality. This world might not have basic social safety nets or OSHA, but they had Iron Giants at their beck and call.

“Look there!” Richard tapped Gwen’s shoulder, pointing at a sudden eruption at the base of the excavation. “Those are River-Gobs!”

The new excavation had inadvertently revealed a warren system, exposing its interior to air and light. As Richard spoke, two midget-like goblins leapt from a collapsed section of the mud-bank and made for the Transmuter.

“CONTACT!” someone yelled.

The Transmuter must have had an armour spell active, for the first Gob bounced off, while the second hung onto his arm without managing to deal damage. The Evoker atop the escarpment seemed lost as he waited for an opportunity to strike, waiting for a Shield or perhaps the Transmuter to throw the Goblins a safe distance away.

The goblins, possibly understanding their life depended on their adhesion to the Transmuter, clung on for dear life.

“Gwen.” Richard nudged her. “What's the range on your Lighting Bolt?”

“Enough." Gwen gauged the distance: the Gobs were a little far, but she could manage. "Ariel! Assist me!"

“INCOMING! DON'T MOVE!” Gwen called out, her voice ringing across the construction space, empowered by both her Essence and a vocalised Clarion Call. “Lightning Bolt!”

The party below was a hundred odd meters away.

A blue-white arc of lightning struck the first ball-like Goblin, penetrating its body before it enveloped the second. Where the electricity would have concurrently assaulted the Transmuter, it instead grounded itself, completing the circuit between Gwen and her target.

The first pot-bellied Mer-Goblin exploded in a shower of guts and bone. The second convulsed; its overtly large eye-sockets boiling before it fell limply to the floor.

Percy stared at his sister, as did a smitten Kusu.

“WOW!” Lulan clapped happily.

Gwen retracted her finger, then blew on it as one would the nozzle of a pistol. The gesture was a little strange to her peers, it wasn’t as though Gwen used a Ray subtype or a wand, but the implication was clear.

“Well done!” Richard clasped her shoulders.

The construction Golem turned its cage upward and waved at the Party.

The Party waved back.

The Transmuter shaped a protruding block of soil into a thumbs up.

Gwen’s companions laughed heartily at the acknowledgement.

“See?” Richard smiled at Gwen, full of confidence. “Nantong’s not so bad, right?”

More Riven-Goblins poured from the warren.

Gwen pupils flared with concentric rings of blue-white electricity.

She could use a good fight to blow off some steam.

 

 

The encounter ended as quickly as it had begun.

In its aftermath, they had been joined by the Transmuter crew Gwen had saved. Perhaps more surprisingly, the pilot of the rig was a NoM and a woman, shocking Percy as well as Gwen. The wizened pilot thanked Gwen and her companions, leaving them a gift of bottled rice wine from Xian. Percy got to have his ride, going as far as walking the golem around, moving several metric-tons of dirt to and fro.

"The controls are manual," Richard explained later, sensing Gwen's confusion. "At least that's true for Construction Golems. If you're wondering about Mage Pilots. They're exclusive to the Military. Did you know Military Golems can be linked to the driver's talents? It's very interesting Magi-tech, mostly from Israel and the U.S.A."

"Abominations." Lulan appeared wary of the giant constructs. "I hear the real ones have human souls sealed into them. That's got to be Necromancy."

"Which is why we use the piloted variety," Richard stated the obvious. "I'd love to see a battle-golem up close though."

They were a little behind schedule now, though that didn't worry Richard. Thanks to Gwen’s Portable Habitat, there was no need to fret over day cycles. Combined with Petra’s Warding expertise and Lulan's Stone Shape they could set up a discrete shelter anywhere, even deep inside the Dungeon.

The marching order of the Party was laid out by their de facto leader. First and foremost was Richard himself, joined by Lea. Lulan, whose swords could counterattack through the soft Water Shields, was second. Gwen was the artillery Mage, taking up third place. In the middle was their VIP, Percy, who was advised to stay put, followed by Kusu and Petra, bringing up the rear.

The team affirmed their positions.

“If we had a Cleric, we could get some group buffs,” Gwen noted from the mid-section, thinking of Elvia.

“No worries there,” Richard advised. "Petra's brought buffs."

"Once we're inside, or when we're close," Gwen's cousin advised. "I've also got two Heroisms cubed."

Lulan gave Petra a thumbs up.

“I could do wonders with a buff like that.” The girl grinned from ear to ear. “Keep me topped up, and I'll solo anything.”

“Now, now,” Ricard placated the cheerfully murderous Lulan as she hopped from foot to foot. “We don’t know what’s at the bottom. It could be a big-ass Water-Ghost, or it could be something nastier. Our job is to kill it, not to put ourselves in unnecessary danger.”

The Sword Mage nodded obediently.

“Lulu, be a good girl and listen to Richard,” Kusu apprised.

“Che-!” The girl clicked her tongue at her brother. "You're not the boss of me."

Kusu shot Richard a look of agonised constipation.
Gwen read it as, ‘Are you seeing this shit?!’

She burst into unexpected laughter, vaguely aware that her offence over the caged NoM had grown diluted and distant. As for the reason why, she could only guess that amongst such a company of excellent and competent companions, her conscience had grown comfortably numb.

"Gwen, can you drop the Hounds now?" Richard diverted Gwen's train of thought before her solicitude could dwell.

"Of course!" Gwen perked up. She had been looking forward to this moment. "Who let the dogs out?"

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A note from Wutosama

Chapter Ref :: Comfortably Numb

Bonus ::  Gwen's Outfits 
Character Summaries :: Character Summary
Glossary and Magic System :: Glossary (Money added) 

Voting for the novel :: Voting button  

Spent some time writing up the Nangtong arc - got raws up to 215 done atm. 

At the moment looks like there won't be too much interruption during Xmas and NY 

edit: forgot to add the pics - 

Saw this around 2012... its always stayed with me

 

 


About the author

Wutosama

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

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