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After what was surely her third plate of dumplings, Gwen was sure she could summon all seven of her hounds in the yet to be attempted Void variant.

There was ample vitality in the meat, though the cooked flesh couldn't compare to her consumption of creatures via Caliban. The real culprit was the rice-wine ginseng combo. It travelled down her throat like liquid fire, mixing with the dumpling, diffusing through her mana channels.

If possible, she would have liked to stow some of it as a sort of 'vitae-potion', though that would be both selfish and improper.

Usually, after a meal, it was only Gwen whose skin glowed with youthful exuberance as her mixed physiology of essence and Void absorbed the mana in the ingredients.

Now, the whole family looked as though they lost a few years. By Gwen's observance, her babulya visibly had fewer wrinkles, while Guo’s arched back appeared straighter, more robust. Seated nearby, her father and uncle Jun both looked more handsome and less worn by the passing of years. Qīn, still heavily pregnant, was positively glowing with life. As for Gwen's future sibling, there was no doubt he or she was going to arrive as hale as anything.

For the younger girls, the effect of the life-extending ginseng wasn’t so notable, though when Gwen's attention turned to Tao, she couldn’t help but burst into laughter.

Tao was the sort of guy who resembled an old man the moment they hit puberty. He slouched, he scowled, drank heavily, and he smoked like a foundry chimney. After a plate of dumplings, a cup of wine and two pieces of the ginseng, he gazed at the family with an unblemished baby-face.

Nen squealed and hugged her baby boy, while Patriarch Wang, himself looking less weathered by overwork, burst into such hilarity that the entire table joined in, roaring with uncontrolled mirth.

Unable to help herself, Gwen reached out and touched her cousin's plump face, ripe with collagen.

His beard, which Tao had attempted to grow to no avail, was now soft, silky and fuzzy.

"How's mah mug, dawg?" The rapper grinned at Gwen. "Handsome Peaches?"

"More like adorable." Gwen squeezed his chin. "With a face like that, you should call yourself Young Peach. Tell me, does idol-rap exist? hahaha."

"How about Peach Fuzz?" Tao rubbed his none-existent jawline. Unfortunately, Tao was a boy with his mother's face. "Don't yo think Fuzzy Peaches juz rolls off the tongue?"

This time, it was Petra who choked on her dumpling.

When Gwen found out that Jun was going to stay at the family compound for the next six days, she too resolved to stay. When Ayxin further informed them that she would be leaving for Huangshan to pay respects to her father and arrange her territory for future trading with Shanghai, nothing in the world could have pried Gwen from the Song compound.

After gleefully faring Ayxin well the next day, she hung about her uncle, bothering him for every little detail.

“Here are the crystals from Huangshan.” Gwen flashed her Ring. “I’ve only got four thousand in Currency Cards on me right now; there’s another five when we sell the rest.”

“As I said, you keep it,” Jun insisted. “It’s not like Ayxin needs to pay for anything on her shopping sprees.”

“Shopping sprees?”

“Oh, she’s been going through the shops as though possessed.” Jun exhaled. “Dragons like to hoard. I think I know as much about women’s clothing as you do now.”

“Oh-ho.” Gwen twirled. “Anything you would like to see me wear?”

Jun chuckled drily, knowing better than to keep talking.

“Ah, you’re no fun,” Gwen teased her laconic Uncle. “So, what have you been up to?”

“Surprisingly, work.” Jun snorted. “What did you think we’re up to?”

“Doing the horizontal tango?”

Jun cocked his head, bemused by her accusation.

“A Latin Dance?”

“Or the spread-eagle fandango…”

“I am afraid that I am not one for folk music,” Jun assured his niece that he and Ayxin had most certainly not engaged in the Cha-cha, vertical, upside-down or otherwise. “But that does give me an idea. There are some fantastic foreign bars in Pudong. Anything to keep away from more shopping, ha.”

“…” Gwen sighed. It was no fun when the person you’re trying to tease was oblivious to innuendo. "Have you and Ayxin engaged in coitus?"

"Ah~," Now it was Jun's turn to exhale with exasperation. "I'd rather not say."

"Why?" Gwen grinned awkwardly. "Nothing's wrong. I am not one to judge someone for premarital sex."

"You should, Gwen," Jun frowned. "You're seventeen!"

"And you're... forty... something!" Gwen pouted, her hands resting against her hips. "I am not a little girl, trust me. Do I look like a clueless waif to you? I know more than you give me credit for!"

Jun glanced at Gwen's hair ornament.

Poor little fool, the Ashbringer averted his gaze, thinking of Ayxin's complaint. The girl put up a good front, but she was as innocent as a ewe.

Gwen took Jun's aversion to infer her Uncle had been slaying his lady dragon day and night, only that the man was too modest to brag. Sure, Ayxin was a two-century-old cougar, but she looked anywhere between sweet-sixteen to twenty. Hell, she could take any form-

Gwen mentally slapped herself.
One shouldn't stare into the abyss for too long, for it gawks back.

“Tell me about Pudong. What’s it like over the checkpoint?” She changed topics.

“What do you want to know?”

“Are there many Demi-humans?”

“Sorry to disappoint, but no.” Jun smirked, far more comfortable with their new topic of conversation. “Nothing like the rumours anyway. The Demi-human guests allowed into Pudong are Government workers, typically expatriates here to establish diplomatic ties. Unlike Europe, China is a very homogenous country, consisting almost entirely of human beings.”

“Are there Elves and Dwarves?”

“A few,” Jun affirmed her limited knowledge. “The Tower has established trade routes with the higher Demi-humans. Of course, if Ayxin can keep her part of our new trade deal, the Dragon-kin may yet become Shanghai’s largest inter-species trading partner.”

“What are we bartering?” Gwen hoped it wasn’t organs, thinking of the Grey Faction and its run-in with Alesia, and knowing how much regard China had for its citizens.

“Crystals, precious metals, gems and food,” Jun educated his niece with great patience. “In return, we get tea, Wildland beasts, herbs, and other useful things infused with draconic-essence. The dāndào's Dānshi are in a tizzy, last I heard.”

“Pill Path?” Having never heard of the title, Gwen's Ioun Stone struggled to find an equivalent lexicon.

“Makers of medicinal Pills & Elixirs,” Jun translated for her. “They make alchemical concoctions with Chinese medicine. The production rate can’t compare to western potions, but the effects of the rarer recipes fall somewhere between low-tier Elven meta-Elixirs and higher-tier pharmaceuticals. Take the Yunnan White-Root Powder for example - a fingernail-sized pinch is enough to close any external body wound, staunch bleeding, and ensure bare-minimal scarring.”

“Wow, why aren’t we stocking em by the ton?” A powder capable of substituting for a potion injector would surely sell very well.

Jun gave her a wry smile.

“The recipe calls for hundred-year-old ginseng and the ground chitin of Calcite Crickets living in the Alu Caverns that hunt down prey to ingest their bone marrow. The lesser Bone Eaters lack potency, so Adventurers have to hunt down the Elder variety, typically tier 8, living in family communes of a dozen or more…”

“Ah.” Gwen shuddered at the thought of two-meter skeletal crickets chewing through human bones. All those little mouth-claws! Terrifying!

“Oh, speaking of which.” Jun slapped his forehead. “Here, I saved this for you.”

Her uncle produced a small packet just a bit larger than his hand.

“Yearling tea from Fur-peak. Ayxin gave it to me, but I am not a tea drinker…”

Gwen held the tea packet. It was such a simple gift, thoughtless even. But it was enough to have her chest welling like a balloon, bursting with gratitude.

“Do Babulya and Grandfather have a share?”

Jun nodded.

Phew, Gwen breathed out, feeling equally relieved and disappointed.

“Thanks, Uncle Jun,” she leaned in and pecked him on the cheek.

Jun gave her a broad smile.

“Well, since we’re here and taking a break.” The Ashbringer stood, stretching his limbs. “I'll give you a reward if you can push me to Shield Break.”

"Ho ho ho." She cackled. "Hold on to your pants!"

Gwen’s anticipated week-long celebration of eating, shopping and training with her Uncle was abruptly cut short the day before the Shangyuan Festival, when Guo asked if she was coming with them to Hubei.

Earlier, the Patriarch of the Song estate had found his son and granddaughter tearing Percy's training hall apart, forcing him to forbid sparring with spells that would overpower the meagre protection offered by the hall's antiquated Force Barriers.

Thanks to Richard's guidebook, Gwen knew about Qingming.

The ritual of ‘grave-sweeping’ was held on the 15th day after the Spring Equinox, requiring the male members of a House to return to the place of their ancestral origins to sweep the graves of their ancestors. As a girl and a Gweilo, there was no expectation that Gwen would attend, though Guo offered to ‘introduce her to the ghosts of the Song ancestors’.

Though not wishing to be rude, the very idea that she would be kneeling before tombstones while her grandfather spoke to the air about the ‘great prosperity’ of finding a granddaughter on the Frontier had her shivering all over, and so she politely declined.

When Gwen asked if the NoMs held such festivities, Guo replied that first, they had to have a glyphed and sealed Ancestral Tomb. After the outbreak of Undead up north, NoM citizens by law had to cremate their dead. Combined with the fact that the CCP had banned the practice of burying the dead out in the Wildlands, NoM citizens no longer practised grave-sweeping, at least not as the Houses or Clans would know it.

Naturally, Percy had to attend, presumably his father as well. 

As for Hai, Gwen had spoken to her father a few times during their stay in the Song compound, though, in all honesty, there was little common ground between them. After all that had happened, amiable dinners would suffice. That Hai was happy with his new wife, waiting for his child to be born, was the best she could manage.

When Golden Week drew to an end, she gave each one of her family members a tight hug, then readied herself for the new semester.

With the beginning of the Spring Semester, life returned to Fudan. The snow had eased mid-January, and by early February, the skeletal mulberry trees were bristling with jade and emerald foliage.

Gwen's favourite restaurants reopened as well; their owners welcomed back the familiar face of the Worm Handler and her Mongolian Death Worm, both spectacles to behold for diners fortunate enough to grace their presence.

After consultation with her peers, her Instructors, the Dean, and anticipating her future needs, she decided on the following courses for her Semester:

Conjuration CJR2001
Translocation CJT2007
Bestiary and Care of Spirits  FAM3021
Evocation EVK2002
Advanced Spell-shaping   ASP2201
Utility Divination DIV2003
Management GEN200M
Economics GEN200E

Conjuration 2001 and Translocation were both taught by the resident Senior Lecturer, Louis Birch. Second-year Conjuration continued the existing theory, moving into higher-level algorithms and incantations necessary for spells tier 6 and beyond.

Translocation was a class taken by Combat Mages wishing to use Short-Range Teleportation as a primary mode of combat. The practical course took students through complex obstacles, as well as instructed the neophytes in various operational tricks of the trade. Juxtaposed against Portage specialisations, Translocation focused on individual mobility and combat adaptation.

Having enjoyed herself so immensely with Instructor Chen in his rudimentary Bestiary class, Gwen opted to join his advanced supplementary course, known simply as Care of Spirits. It was a rare and exclusive course offered only to students with Spirit-Familiars, focusing on teaching Spirits combat doctrines, as well as fostering independent action.

Evocation 2002 under Magus Young, like Conjuration 1002, focused on spell-theory and complex incantations used to boost affinity for Evocation, allowing casters to reach higher tiers of their craft.

Advanced Spell-Shaping was likewise a 'step up' on the same course under Michio Lee, moving away from the general history of Spellcraft into experimental theorems necessary for the creation of original spells. According to the course guide, the final goal for the course was for students to create an original chant of their own to submit to the Tower as a part of a semester-long dissertation. Furthermore, the course included a short excursion to Pudong, further serving as a primary motivation for her choice of Lee's course.

Finally, Gwen’s choice of Divination Utility focused on three primary objectives. First, learning to employ Detect Magic with greater proficiency; second, to bring her Divination affinity to at least 2; third, to learn Arcane Sight, Track Ally and Link Sight.

Arcane Sight serves the invaluable function of detecting camouflaged or invisible creatures. It was useful in uncovering Illusions up to one tier above the invoker’s mastery, meaning Gwen could identify competitors using the tier 2 Invisibility, albeit the tier 4 Great Invisibility would be beyond her ken.

Track Ally was an immensely useful form of Locate Person which did not require the user to be a blood-line Diviner. Once cast, Gwen left a mark on a willing creature, allowing her to find and if need be, Teleport to their location.

The spell was useful in that it worked through walls both mundane and magical, meaning Gwen could track members of her party precisely for up to a kilometre even in a Dungeon, or know their general direction so long as the spell remained on her target.

Finally, Link Sight was the real boon Gwen sought. That she now possessed a flying Familiar opened her world to a Creature Mage staple - using one’s Familiar as an extension of one's senses. Via Link Sight, Gwen could see through Ariel’s eyes, gaining topographic mastery of an area when outdoors and lacking a Diviner, or send Ariel to scout out dangerous regions such as an indoor Dungeon or outdoor lair. Should danger present itself, she could unsummon her Familiar in a split-second.

Furthermore, for Gwen, Ariel's channelling ability plus her Link Sight would make an incredible combination. Assuming she had range, all kind of combo gimmicks involving Dimension Door, AoEs and so on could be attempted.

Lastly, her two Gen-Ed courses were 'cake-walks' whose only purpose was to boost her Weighted Average Mark. Confident that she would almost certainly get near-perfect marks from Professor Ma with minimal fuss, it freed her up to work at her office, while still receiving credit for her coursework.

After re-adjusting her schedule with Ruì, she returned to the campus mid-February, once again ready to dive into the world of academia.

“Make way!”

Gwen was finding out just how troublesome it was to accompany the ‘Flower of Fudan’ through a roaring campus.

The first week of the Semester was Orientation Week, meaning the clubs were out in force trying to recruit the new starry-eyed Mages entering the university. As usual, the Duelling Club had set up a huge pavilion with portable Walls of Force, working spell in hand with the Eatery Club and the Hidden Cuisine Cabal, combining the affinity of action and delicacies. Together, the trio dominated the competition year after year, taking up the entire main lawn between Guahua and Hengbuo Avenues.

Tempted by the street food, Gwen had inched forward stall by stall until she was smack-bang in the midst of the busiest section of the festival. As she had Petra in tow, the folks around the Duelling Arena had mistakenly thought the girls wanted to gawk at the duelists.

“Make way for the Flowers of Fudan!” someone joked, yelling at the first-year newcomers.

Gwen recoiled. Petra’s souring expression likewise inferred they ought to leave, though nothing short of a Dimension Door or Flight would manage a return path, and both were forbidden on campus.

Also, she had ambivalent feelings about any nicknames to do with flowers.

For a while now, she had resigned herself to the cringe-worthy innuendo gifted by Caliban. A two meter long phallic faceless ophidian as pet warranted an equally cheeky title, but 'flower'? The implications were horrid. Was she waiting to be picked, or were they telling her she should be making the most of her youth before it wilted? While showering one night, she'd thought about why Petra had acquired such a title and realised it was because her cousin refused to date and had an aversion to commitment, making her a desirable 'flower' without an 'owner'.

The crowd parted.

On stage, two Mages duelled, flashing blasts of fire and something indistinct. When a bolt of the foreign substance cascaded against the Force Barrier, Gwen recognised it as Dust.

A Dust Mage?! Here?

The Fire Evoker-Transmuter had a similar style to Alesia, using powerful short-range bursts combined with a transmuted body of flames, but the overwhelming volume of Dust particles filling the chamber suppressed the Evoker's furious discharge.

Even with her improved kinetic-vision, the dust-clad Mage was well-Shielded. From his silhouette, however, she knew the caster to be a stranger.

Outside of her twin-elements, Dust was perhaps her most researched Quasi-Elemental Plane. After all, assuming Ravenport had other members of his household coming after her, the eventuality of beating down other Dust Mages was high.

Where Ash and Void were the most volatile and consumptive of Quasi-Elements, Dust was more akin to Salt in that it consisted primarily of Elemental Earth. Furthermore, despite its reputation as an element of destruction and death, Dust could be readily found in the natural world; present in the aftermath of decomposition and decay. In short, where there were living things, there would inevitably be motes of Dust woven into the refuse.

“Do you know Sir Tei?” One of the Mages, noting her dismay, stopped to ask her a question. From the look of his uniform, the man was a Senior at the Duelling Club, likely one of the event organisers.

“No, I was just looking.” Gwen tried to step back into the crowd, but the gap they’d opened earlier was now thick with juniors desiring a gander. If there was one thing she’d learned about crowds in China, it was that people loved crowding and hated lines. It made many a night's grocery shopping an unenviable chore.

“Pats, we’re leaving.” Gwen turned from the makeshift arena. She had no time for duels; not when there was food to be eaten. Earlier, she had seen a stall selling glazed pineapple buns.

“Sir Tei is a candidate recently returned from the IIUC,” the speaker continued. “He’s tier 6 in his specialised Abjuration School.”

Gwen paused, her retreat faltering in the wake of curiosity.

An IIUC candidate?

She had no idea who most candidates for the IIUC selection may be other than Kitty, herself, Richard and possibly Lulan, though she had been told to look out should she encounter second and third-year veterans.

“Tell me more,” she urged the club member, who obliged with red-faced gusto.

“Sir Tei comes from the Northern Clans near Shandong. Do you know of the Tei Family of Taishang? They are the guardians of the Mount since ancient times. It’s a place famous for birthing scholars! Confucius, Mozi, Zenzi, even the Sage of the Three Kingdoms, Zhuge Kongming!”

Holy shit, Gwen knew jack-shit about Chinese history, but even she had heard of these renown figures of mythoi, each instrumental in creating entire epochs and legends of Chinese history. One place gave birth to all these geniuses? What the hell did they put in the water over there?

Above the girls, the battle had already ended.

The Force Barriers retracted. The challenger bowed deeply before removing himself from the scene. Looking up, Gwen realised the victor was coming toward them.

Tei Bai, A.K.A 'Tombstone Tei' appeared shorter outside of combat than he’d seemed when wrapped in flames and dust. Stepping over the edge of the arena, he received the good cheer of his juniors before turning to the two girls whose pilgrimage through the food stalls had deposited them in front of the stage. Though he had not intended to accost the girls, that they stood half a head taller, possessed the visage of flowers, and had cleared a ring of space made the pair too conspicuous to ignore.

When his eyes fell upon the dual-element sorceress, a faint smile touched Tei's lips. Of course, he recognised the Gweilo girls. One was the Flower of Fudan, while the other was her Worm Handling companion. For Tei Bai, his interest in the Worm sorceress stemmed from the rumour that Gwen had bested Wonsoo Li in single-combat in Hangzhou. Of course, he didn't mind her victory, just the opposite, in fact, because his role in the IIUC was the position of the Abjurer. Her Mastery was to Bai a boon, assuming the rumour she was aiming for the IIUC was correct.

“Miss Song!” he called out, taking the girl’s unwavering gaze for interest. “Care for a duel?”

Down below, Gwen's curiosity was in sync with Bai.

To improve her craft, she had squared off against her uncle, her friends and her companions.

Against Richard, each bout was an agonising affair. If she directly used Barbanginy, she could blow through both Familiar and Water Mage. Without the support of her catalysed lightning, however, she struggled to land a hit. Against both of her elements, Richard’s unrivalled manipulation of water was a hard counter. Paralleled against her role as a Creature Mage and a Conjurer, Richard's Undine-enhanced affinity blew her tier 6 out of the water. When she tried to close in, she despaired that Richard’ Dimension Door, though lacking an AoE burst on impact, was faster than her Lightning-teleports. Only by using both Ariel and Caliban could she hope to trap Richard and wear him down, though a single misstep meant she fell into a bubble of water.

Lulan provided a similar challenge, though the girl’s melee was as terrible a match up against Gwen as she was against Richard. Interestingly, Lulan had a far easier time against Richard, blowing through Lea and Richard’s Abjuration, while against Gwen’s reactive Lightning Shield and Void barriers, Lulu's sword magic suffered.

The only other personage nearing her practice of Stagecraft was Kitty, who she’d sparred twice via aerial duels, each time with ambivalent results. Without Ariel acting as a mobile flying turret, utilising its friend-foe abilities, Gwen had no means of landing a hit at the flighty Wind-Mage. On the other hand, Gwen’s non-Newtonian hard-Shield might as well be the Great Wall of China to Kitty’s Air and Ice offensive magic, especially if Gwen rapidly Teleported to avoid her slow-inducing AoEs.

What she wanted was to fight higher-tier Mages like her uncle, but such a thing was unlikely to happen.

As an unexpected insight, she was beginning to realise why Duels at the higher tier of magic fell from favour. When a single spell was capable of filling half the arena with AoEs, all finesse fell away, leaving only the brutal arithmetic of power and defence. Likewise, the methodology of self-preservation also increased exponentially. In the future, should she face off against Gunther’s foretold foes such as Spectre Enforcers or goons serving Ravenport, killing or maiming a Magus-tier opponent was possible only if both sides were willing to fight until the bitter end.

Likewise, should she, Gunther and Alesia pursue Sobel, how many days, mayhap weeks, would it take before finally, haggard and exhausted, they forced the woman to assume a final stand?

Gwen looked toward Petra for instruction. Her cousin's response was that if Gwen had to do it, she better do it quick.

“Sure.” She clambered onto the dais, thinking that she could use the digestion. “Please go easy on me, Senior.”

Tei Bai extended a hand to help her up, just as Gwen stretched a white leg over the ledge, the crowd erupted into wolf-whistles and cheers.

Alarmed, she smoothed down the hem of her dress. When the weather had turned warm, she had gone back to the most comfortable clothing she owned - silk sundresses. Unfortunately, her blushing modesty seemed to have incensed the crowd further. Some of the first-years were positively howling with glee, their eyes bloodshot with a cocktail of battle lust, as well as regular old desire.

The Dust Mage stood to one side.

“Apologies, Miss Song.” Tei inclined his head. "I was careless."

“No need.” Gwen looked down at her opponent with a sickly sweet smile, her expression causing his follicles to stand to rigid attention. In her wedge sandals, she was much taller in person, almost a head taller.

Hopefully, by the time she was done, no one would think of her as a flower ever again.

 

 

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