Gila-ban caught Lulan’s blade with its torso, its scythe-sized claws missing Lulan’s thighs by an inch.
Lulan intercepted Gwen’s bolt with a hovering slab of iron, redirecting the current to the ground.
“Cali, do it now!”
Twisting sets of writhing tentacles shot from Caliban’s open maw.
Blocking Caliban with the first, Lulan's second slab of gleaming iron pinned Gwen's Familiar to the floor, pulling the creature's tentacles just enough so as to grazed, but not penetrate, her iron-clad dermis.
Outside the duelling box, Richard and Kusu watched as the two girls thrust and parried one another’s spells. Lulan had the clear advantage at melee distance. Gwen dominated at longer ranges. Though Gwen could teleport rapidly, her tier 4 translocation took much more concentration than the Signature Blink utilised by the Clanner. Were it not for Gwen's prodigious affinity for Lightning; it would have been impossible for her to keep up with a melee Mage like Lulan.
Of course, the Sword Mage’s advantage existed only in the confines of the Duelling Arena. Out in the real word, Gwen could displace herself as far as a hundred meters, while Lulan’s Misty Step managed twenty at best.
“Dimension Do- Oof!”
Lulan managed to catch Gwen on the tenth teleport, sending Gwen's non-Newtonian Shield skittering and sparking across the floor.
“Gwen, are you alright?!” Lulan dispelled her swords, landing beside the winded sorceress.
“I am fine.” Gwen nursed her left lumbar. Had her Shield had been a split-second slower, she would have paid a visit to the infirmary. “Ouch.”
“Good fight!” Richard called out. “So, what’s your takeaway on fighting a dedicated Melee-Transmuter?”
“Run the hell away.” Gwen took Lulan’s hand, catching herself on the girl’s shoulders.
“I wouldn't have won if you had Caliban and Ariel out at the same time,” Lulan pointed out. “Not to mention your Dragon-hounds.”
“Not in an ambush I won’t,” Gwen replied. “Especially not the dogs. Also, Ariel’s melee talents are fairly limited, and I need concentration to activate Barbanginy.”
Her praise was overly humble, but there was a reason for that. Gwen wanted Lulan to build up her confidence. Otherwise, the fact that Ariel and Caliban had hasted charge-attacks when in their fully-empowered forms would have made short work of the melee-caster, not to mention her pseudo-Kirin could fly.
“Just shoot yourself with an Elemental Sphere,” Richard quipped. “Ariel’s got IFF. I bet that’ll dissuade anyone from getting into a melee with you.”
“What if they attack Ariel first?” Gwen pointed out.
“Immediately unsummon, then re-summon Ariel with as much altitude as possible,” Richard counselled expertly.
Gwen made an ‘O’ with her lips.
"You need to reconsider your techniques from the perspective of a Spirit-possessing Elementalist." Richard patted his cousin on the head. "Watch my fight with Kusu; I'll show you."
“Wow, that’s evil.” Lulan imagined Gwen hitting herself with an Elemental Sphere, catching her in the splash as she closed in for melee.
“Additionally, you could go in with Invisible Familiar.” Richard laughed. “I’d love to see that.”
“Suddenly, a Ba-ban-gin-ni.” Kusu shivered all over. “I can’t even imagine.”
“Barbanginy,” Gwen corrected her companions. No one seemed capable of pronouncing the Noongar word for Lightning, least of all her Asian counterparts. With little else happening in the quiet start of December, the team had taken to training together in Gwen’s pre-booked training chamber.
“I don’t know, Gwen…” Lulan dispelled her physical enhancements. “I don’t think I am suited for the IIUC.”
“Nonsense.” Gwen hugged the girl about her shoulders. “Confidence, Lulu. You’re the quickest caster I know. You weren't even Hasted! If you can give me a run for my crystals, you’ll brutalise the others.”
Thinking of the IIUC ahead, Gwen had decided to induct Lulan into her and Richard’s group. She had initially asked Petra, though the Enchanter made an excellent case for her vacancy.
“One, I can’t use my Mind Magic in public. Two, I don’t bring a unique spell-set, I can only replicate spells our team already possesses. It’s not like I can borrow Spell-cubes from Master, or stow rare spells to take on Quests. That would violate the rules of the competition. It’s a test of competency and skill, not a test of who’s got the best backers.”
Instead, Petra suggested that Gwen should groom Lulan as her front-line fighter.
Lulan looked over at Richard. Gwen's cousin likewise affirmed her brilliance.
“Lulan, you’re exactly what we need,” he assured her. “My defence and battlefield control you can attest to, but when it comes to offence, your efficacy is leagues ahead of mine. No one can disrupt casting as well as you.”
"Alright, come on, Kusu," Richard ushered the Sword Mage into the make-shift duelling arena. "I'll make this easy!"
A week after she had submitted her application, Gwen's Magitech ‘Quest’ remained unresolved.
Her request was for an Enchanter with expertise on Data Slates to meet with her and discuss the possibility of additional glyph functions. The meet and greet itself would award 10 CCs, with an extra 20 - 40 CCs for each ‘function’ the Enchanter implemented.
“It’s a strange request, so please be patient,” the doubtful clerk informed the infamous Worm Handler. “Assuming no one takes the Quest. Your deposit of 30 CCs will be refunded after ten weeks.”
The deposit was a nice touch, Gwen had to admit. Quests rewarding CCs made by private entities must provide 50% of the payout as a deposit. Should the requester fail to pay the contractor, the Tower will award the deposit to the contractor, then penalise the offender.
When she returned to the glass interior of her office, she caught sight of her three employees each at their private stations.
Dai sat aimlessly with one leg across his knee, hiding behind a pile of paperwork, tossing a ball of Water to and fro, watching it turn into different forms as it reached the zenith of each arc.
Across the table, Ken was earnestly making a futile attempt at the accounting homework Gwen had set the man, struggling to balance the accounts send in by Patriarch Fung’s Construction Golem Division. The difficulty lied in that someone had stolen about 300 HDMs worth of crystalline fuel and had written it off on overtime while simultaneously another manager was underpaying the NoM operators. When Gwen went through the report herself a day earlier, she had spotted the missing fuel pushed onto maintenance, while the schedules of at least a dozen NoM operators was fudged as 'human error'.
But at least Ken was trying.
On the farther side of the open office, her P.A seemed to have taken to work like a Mermaid to water. Ruì's table, intentionally designed by Gwen to be larger than her Mage companions and curved to resemble a kidney, had neatly stacked paperwork in the manner Gwen preferred - ‘To Do,’ ‘In Progress,’ and ‘Ready for Submission’.
“Ruì,” she greeted her P.A first and foremost before turning her attention to the others. “Good work, where did you get up to?”
“Almost done with the East Quadrant Warehouse Expense account, Ma’am,” Ruì answered reverently. What Gwen had taught her over the last few days would have made Professor Ma blush for shame. The manner in which her absurdly young teacher had split the accounts into Cash Accounting for their smaller operations and Accrual Accounting for Tonglv’s construction was ingenious. Now equipped with the ability to report revenue and expense on a quarterly-basis, Ruì could generate periodic tax liabilities the Canal owed the state. The smaller, for-profit operations could then offset their tax against the construction project, whose taxes were offloaded to the District Governor’s office for reimbursement by the CCP’s Central Economic Bureau. This way, the profitable operation paid less tax, while Governor Fung could keep a finger on the pulse of the project's budget. “I can’t believe we’re making crystals through accounting!”
“Ha, saving on taxes IS no different to generating profit,” Gwen praised her P.A. “Any Messages for me?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Ruì pulled out a data slate from under her table. “Professor Ma says that everything is proceeding smoothly with Secretary Fung and the others in Nantong and they should be operational starting next year. He had some questions which he will deliver to you via data slates. You’ve also got a Message from the House of M, requesting a time slot for later in the week. Also, someone called Tao Wang Messaged in, saying he had free tickets for a ‘show’; that’s all I have for today.”
“Very good, Ruì. Good work,” Gwen golf-clapped. She then turned to the young men sweating at their desks. “Message Tao and thank him, but tell him I am busy. Ken, Dai? Got some good news for me?”
Ken sat sweltering in his ergonomic chair.
“I’ll need another hour, er… make that two hours.”
"That's fine, Ken. Keep it up. Dai?”
Dai blinked at Gwen, his face full of irritation.
“What was I supposed to do again?”
Gwen pointed to the paperwork.
“You can’t be serious…”
“You didn’t do it?”
“Ruì can do it.” Dai waved at the NoM girl. “Ruì! Can do you this for me later?”
“Yessir,” Ruì answered demurely.
“See?” Dai smirked.
Gwen grinned back, flashing her teeth.
The temperature in the already glyph-cooled room lowered. Dai felt every hair on his neck stand to attention. Carefully, he dispelled his water-ball.
“Ruì, Ken, leave us.”
Ruì ran for the door, joined by Ken, who was more than happy to get away from the accounts unbalancing his sanity.
“Dai Fung!” Gwen stalked toward their power-progeny heavily. She couldn't believe that after all that 'pep' she had to go through, the man remained as useless as a log. “Explain yourself.”
"What's there to explain?"
"Why aren't you doing your assigned work?"
"I am beyond this bullshit, give me something better to do."
"How the hell are you supposed to manage Ruì or your future aides if you have no idea what they're showing you?! How useless do you hope to be? What did you promise me?"
Dai’s face changed from smugness to one of indignant ire. He had given the girl more space than he had given anyone in his twenty-two years of existence, yet still, she shamelessly stood on his toes.
“Cao! Who do you think you are, speaking to me like this?” Dai cracked his neck, standing over her.
"Dai, do you want me to call your father right now?" Gwen didn't bother with the invitation to dance, choosing instead to go straight for the gonads.
Dai's complexion reddened. The girl had gone too far. He had thought the minx fun and beautiful and lively, but now she'd upgraded from standing on his toes to walking over his face. The audacity of the woman! Give her three colours, and she would open a paint factory!
He raised a hand as if to slap her, expecting her to flinch or at least take back her threat.
Who does this biaozi think she is? She's just a girl, a dual-elementalist, a Void Mage, a soon to be Magus, someone who duelled Wonsoo Liu to the hospital-
WOCAO! Dai's passion cooled, his logic coming to an unfortunate realisation. Gwen could kick the shit out of him without breaking a sweat! Subtlely lowering his hand to scratch his nose, Dai nervously looked away, then glanced back to see if Gwen had gotten upset.
Instead, his unrequited amour cooly stepped away.
“Hello? Fung Group Office? This is Gwen Song, connect me to Patriarch Fung, please. It’s urgent.”
“Tamade!” Dai's hand was moving with a mind of its own. “Water Missile!”
A blast of water shot through the air and struck the girl squarely across her upper torso. Miraculously, the water did not injure his target but travelled up her blouse and her arm until it tore the Message Device, a thin gold bracelet, from her wrist, sending it clattering to the floor.
“What in Mao’s name do you think you’re doing?” Dai stood from his chair, his back drenched with cold sweat. Wocao! Wocao! Wocao! His mind raced a million miles a minute. What the fuck am I doing? Get father involved? Need it come to that? Was she so bad at taking a joke?
In front of him, Gwen wrung a handful of water from her hair. The jet-blast had avoided most of her clothes, but the resultant splash, though harmless, had caught her hair and her right shoulder.
“I should ask you the same question, what do you think you’re doing?”
Dai’s retort caught in his throat. He was in the wrong, but he could see her bra. Truth be told, he could see a hint of cleavage too. He tried to think.
Hmm, they're smaller than he thought.
“Erm… we should get the cleaners in,” Dai stammered after racking his brain for half a minute. “The water will ruin the floor.”
“Clean it up,” Gwen commanded, her eyes glowing with supernatural aggravation, setting her amber-green irises ablaze.
“That’s for the cleaners!” Dai insisted stubbornly, his eyes wide and staring, unable to tear himself from the unexpected titillation.
Gwen crossed the floor in an instant, faster than Dai could blink. She caught Dai's collar before he could decide whether summoning his Spirit to defend him was a better or worse course of action. Pulling his face within an inch of her demanding gaze, she cranked her Dragon-fear to eleven.
“Suiqi, clean it up!” Dai croaked.
An aquamarine salamander, its body entirely transparent, slithered from Dai’s pant leg to lap up the water he had spilt, leaving not a single drop.
“Do you want to be here, Dai?” Gwen waited until the salamander dissipated before releasing the man’s tie. Her eyes softened, in Dai's eyes, the girl choked back a torrent of emotions threatening to spill. “Am I forcing you to be here? Are you my prisoner?”
Dai had fully expected Gwen to slap him or at least attack him with a Lighting Bolt. Instead, his whole body had gone numb with indescribable guilt.
“N-no… I want to be here.” A rush of blood hammered at his head, he couldn't think.
“Then am I not doing enough?” Gwen demanded of Dai. “Have I not done enough for you?”
Dai’s eyes told her 'yes', but his lips were forming a 'no'. A few inches from the man, Gwen recognised the stubbornness. Dai wasn’t just a regular idiot; he was a narcissistic, megalomaniac idiot.
“I made a deal with your Father, Dai.” Gwen moved her hands to his shoulders. With her grip strength, the man couldn't escape without touching her, which she knew he dared not to do. “I told him I would take care of you, make you into someone useful for our operation. Instead, you loaf about all day, moping about this and that, playing the loser.”
A single glare from Gwen was enough to silence him.
Gwen sighed. As a man, a companion, or a co-worker, Dai was a failure. She would put him to his proper use, harness Dai's out of control testosterone. If she left him as he is, he was a liability for when she went away on the IIUC.
"Have you calmed down?"
“Then listen to me, Dai Fung,” she spoke slowly and meticulous. “My dearest wish is for you to be standing atop the Fung Group, leading your company, lording over your Clan, being you, standing beside Vice-Chairman Tu, Magister Chen and Patriarch Fung. That was my intent when your father pleaded for your position. A condition I agreed to because I was very much full of hope for your ascension. Wow, Dai Fung, I told myself, what a catch. He must be an incredible guy…”
Dai stared at Gwen with his mouth half open, flabbergasted by her sudden tenderness.
“… So I come out here, working my ass off; for myself of course, but also you. I got you to rent the office for me so you could show your father that you can do it, show him that you're competent. Else I could have asked the Wangs. Look around. We built this place, Dai, and it looks amazing - don’t you think it looks amazing?”
“Y-yes,” Dai confessed, his voice croaking.
"I jog at 6 AM - did you know I start my day at 5 AM? I get up at 4 AM, Dai, and I think to myself. I better train my ass off, because I need to be at the office, consulting, whipping you and Ken and Ruì into shape, answering mail, writing reports, drafting proposals. But I don’t gripe about it, okay, Dai? I don’t bitch about it. I go home at 6 PM, and you know what I do? I have supper, and then I train again. Training for the IIUC, Dai. No rest for the wicked. But why? Well, you know why. I took time out of my training to make sure that you have an easier time. But I don’t brag about it, how come? Why go to all the trouble?"
"..." Dai's lips parted. "I don't know."
"Because I want to do it - because I believe in you - because you’re worth it. Okay?” Gwen revved her Almudj's Essence like a chainsaw.
“Okay,” Dai muttered, mesmerised by her oratory, paralysed by her Dragon-fear.
“So help me, Dai.” Gwen welcomed the climax of her speech. She could hardly contain her excitement. Who’d thought one of her favourite in-flight films would be so damn useful? Even parroting the line, she shivered with motivational energy.
“So help me - help you. Dai. Help me, help you.”
The two stood in awkward silence.
Fuck, Gwen forced her face to remain impassive. Was it too much? The kid better not be too thick-skulled to take it all in.
“I am sorry,” her opponent suddenly exhaled, his eyes grew moist. “That’s the most touching thing anyone has ever said to me. I love you.”
Not the reaction I was looking for, but good enough. Gwen relaxed: if anything, she had to stop herself from rolling her eyes. What’s with these assholes who don’t appreciate their parents. What about your father, Dai? Didn't he send you to me to make crystals and gain reputation? If she had a father like Dai’s, she would have been ten times the man Dai was right now. Hell, she'd probably be the right-hand woman to Secretary-General Miao.
“Thank you, Da-”
Her Message device chimed from the floor.
“It’s your father.” Gwen glanced at the pale young man before picking up her device.
For the first time in his life, he bowed wholeheartedly to someone who wasn't his father.
Patriarch Fung had called to ask why she had hung up. Gwen apologised and told him she had another incoming call, and that the matter was regarding Dai and if she could ask him to canvas Shanghai’s Fu-er-dai to find financiers for Tonglv’s second-stage expansion.
“If he’s up to it.” Patriarch Fung knew well his Son’s ability. From his dubious tone, the man doubted Gwen’s grandiose projection of Dai’s competence.
“I have full confidence in his abilities.” Gwen flashed Dai with a smile that showed off her pearly whites.
“Hee, you're too generous.” Unlike Dai, Patriarch Fung wasn’t a man so easily taken in. “Good work bringing in Ma, by the way. It puts me at ease knowing he’s watching over Tu and Chen.”
The same to you, Gwen stifled a snigger.
“Anyway, keep me updated. If Dai acts up, tell him, I'll skin him alive.”
Shen Fung terminated the Message.
Gwen was once again alone in the room with the Patriarch's darling son.
Just as she was wondering how else she could bend the young princeling to her will, Dai bowed again, a full ninety-degree show of subservience.
“I’ll do it,” Dai announced, his eyes fervent. “Just tell me what to do.”
Gwen’s eyes moved toward the paperwork.
Dai’s profile grew rigid.
It wasn't that he didn't want to do it, but that he essentially couldn't do it. Was it his fault that he had spent three years in Jianqiao duelling, drinking, whoring and partying? It's not like securing guan-xi and hooking up with the nouvelle riche taught him how to balance and audit financial statements.
“I won’t ask you to do that anymore, at least not until you ease into it.” Gwen threw him a carrot. “How about instead, you do something that'll benefit the both of us, and carry out your father’s plans?”
Dai’s expression grew hopeful.
“With Professor Ma now overseeing external Audits, we can afford a more rapid expansion,” Gwen stated. What she meant, of course, was that Tonglv was now a big old slab of braised pork dripping with fat, with every Secretary and his dog wanting a slice. “You, my friend, are going to do what you do best. Did you hear what I told your father? You can do that much for me, right?”
“I’ll convince them!” Dai expressed eagerly.
There it is! Gwen breathed out. Dai was finally getting it.
“Ha, I am not sending you out there alone! Take this." Gwen snapped her fingers, producing an obsidian currency card made of a material so dark that it seemed to absorb light. “This an Orichalcum-Centurion Card.”
The card drifted through the air until it reached Dai’s hands.
The moment his fingers touched its surface, it lit up with two pictograms that read ‘Dai Fung’, followed by the pictogram Sigil for his Clan besides his name.
“It’s heavy…” Dai hefted the card. “Mao, this is real Orichalcum!”
“Of course it is.” Gwen snorted. “When you go out with your friends, make sure you present this card at each club and restaurant.”
“Because they're worth your time and interest. That card is a limited-edition item from the House of M. At any establishment owned or affiliated with the House of M; you will receive VIP personalised service: private rooms, discounts, limited stock, the works.”
Dai, of course, knew of the House of M. He was one of their most frequent customers, although, like most of the power-progeny, he was a VIP only in the sense of a fox borrowing the tiger’s terror.
“And at places not connected to the House of M?”
“You show the card anyway,” Gwen chuckled. “Remember, it’s called the M-Centurion Card. Or the Orichalcum-Card. There’s only a few like it in existence at this point. Don’t lose it.”
“Why am I doing this?” Though suspicious, Dai pocketed the card anyway. He was too curious not to try it out, not to mention the damned thing was Orichalcum!
“You don’t have to-” Gwen reached out a dainty white hand. "Give it back, I am sure Peaches..."
“I’ll do it!” Dai knew he was not committed to the girl's demands. Whatever Gwen's intent, he would have to pay his dues. It was the least he could do to show appreciation to the girl who thought of him so dearly.
Gwen glanced at the clock.
They’d been at this for too long. Ruì needed to go back to work.
“I am glad we see eye to eye, Dai.” Gwen softened her stance. “Now take that card, and...”
“And?” Dai asked eagerly.
“… don’t forget to pay the balance at the end of the month.”