“As I am the Senior, you may have first-strike,” Tei Bai offered, recognising the mistake of asking his junior to duel while she wore casual clothing. At their tier of magic, it wasn’t uncommon for wayward spells to result in minor wardrobe malfunctions. His Dust element, furthermore, had a habit of destroying delicate fabrics. “I would defend myself very carefully, if I was you, Miss Song. First to Shield-Break?”

“Ha! Your confidence is going to be your downfall,” Gwen snubbed her senior's warning. To her audience, her haughtiness felt natural and certain, especially when considering her reputation. “I am going to open with a finisher if you're not careful.”

“I look forward to it.” Bai's response was sombre. “You're a... confident young woman, Miss Song.”

Gwen returned her senior's retort by arching her neck gracefully, then inclining her chin ever so slightly.

The audience cooed.
There was nothing like a good bout of shit-talking a before a match. That way, when a contestant inevitably ate their teeth, they'd also have to spoon down a mouthful of their own words.

The two parted.

The Adjudicator, a senior club member, began the countdown.







The crowd held its breath, but it would appear neither contestant desired to make the first move. Bai had waited for Gwen to act, while Gwen waited to see what Bai would do and if her Senior was arrogant enough to gift her the first-strike.

“If you insist.” Gwen hoped her opponent was as competent as he proclaimed himself to be. Focusing her mind, she leisurely erected her non-Newtonian Shield, then began to chant her hound-summoning invocation.

“That Shield!” The Dust Abjurer's expression turned serious the moment her double-glazed dome came into existence. “That’s the Morning Star’s Signature Shield! How is it that you know it?”

Gwen smirked. To recognise her brother-in-craft's Shield, this Tei Bai was a Mage of culture. In the next moment, without missing a single syllable, she completed the summoning mandala, having attained a moderate mastery over a month's practice.

“Hmmph!” Bai grunted, his skin crawling as the flood of Conjuration mana issuing from his opponent tickled his scalp, dispelling his sense of ease. He recalled his father's warning that with overconfidence, one might tip one's skiff even in a gutter. “Pillars of Taishan!”

Four columns of dust swirled into existence around the Dust Mage, each three meters tall, vaguely inscribed with scripture and rough-hewn images.

“Ten-Thousand Stones!”

Above Gwen, a blizzard of Dust-speckled stones began to rain down on her non-Newtonian Shield, blighting the dome with a choking haze of free-falling particles. The unimpressive impact informed Gwen that the spell wasn't one for lethality but rather, served to limit her movement.

Is he trying to bury me? Gwen watched her double-glazed Shield turn white from the blows, the interior of her Shield grew dark as Dust blanketed her transparent pane like dirty snow, draining the static from her Lightning-tinged barrier.


With a muffled cry from her opponent, the motes of dust instantly grew compact, encrusting Gwen within a vault of shale.

Tombstone Tei indeed! Gwen was beginning to see where the man had gotten his moniker. The fact that the Dust Mage had used a defensive spell as an offensive entrapment was impressive. She could feel the weight of the stones crushing inward. Not only that, the sorcerous snare grew heavier by the minute. Were it not for her absurdly large VMI; she should be immediately entertaining teleporting away before her Shield collapsed or she ran out of mana for a counter-offensive.

But for now, she was safe. With her summoning mandala completed, she allowed her opportunistic Conjuration to manifest.

“Hound Pack!”

Six deerhounds emerged beside her. It was a tight squeeze inside her barrier.

“Alright everyone, gather around.”

Her dogs stood to attention, attuned to their master’s mana signature.

She gave an order for the dogs to fan out and encircle the Dust Mage as soon as they relocated.

It was time to put to practice one of her new tricks of the trade.

“Dimension Door!”

Her mana pool dropped by almost a quarter.

When she had last studied with Instructor Chen, she lamented having to re-summon her dogs whenever she had to cross water or venture across terrain that could only be managed by flying or teleportation. As a result of her high-affinity, her hounds were more elemental than flesh and blood, resulting in a propensity to dissipate when submerged bodies of water.

"With your VMI, why not use Dimension Door?" her Instructor had queried.

How so? She had enquired, Dimension Door was limited to one additional person, was it not?

“Not exactly.” To demonstrate, Chen blew her mind by teleporting with all nine of his dogs at once, though the Senior Conjurer was well-haggard when he appeared fifty metres away across the underground training hall. “Your elemental beings possess the same signature as your magic, meaning they are less prone to Astral-distortion. The reason we don’t transport more than one 'passenger' via Dimension Door is two-fold. One, because of excessive mana usage, which increases exponentially, and two, because spatial tears become inevitable when carrying a being with their Astral signature. As magical creations of your own making, conjured creatures cost less mana to move. In fact, the higher your affinity, the less prone they are to sudden-death-upon-materialisation.”

Serendipitously, Instructor Chen's advise furthermore provided an unexpected boon. When Gwen appeared beside Bai’s pillar, it wasn’t a single electric nova that erupted, but six mini-novas plus Gwen’s own. Her dogs' Astral-hop likewise triggered the after-effect of her Master’s Signature Dimension Door.

The miraculous Easter Egg was a pleasant discovery.

But simultaneously, Gwen had grown melancholic, wondering just how many Signature Spells her Master had in store for her had Henry not perished so suddenly.

The resultant blast, momentarily igniting the air with blue-white plasma, was enough to collapse one of Bai’s pillars, making Gwen realise the young man’s unique Abjuration spell must be a means to absorb damage.

Muttering incantations under his breath, her opponent withdrew the magic he had used to entomb her. Her senior opened his mouth to make a remark but was cut off by the swiftness of her recovery.


“Oooh! IT'S HERE!”

An enormous clamour broke out, far louder than when Gwen had too immodestly ascended the stage. The passion was of such fervency that she began to doubt her ears. Her obsidian worm with a lamprey's mouth was more popular than she was? Why? Had her Familiar snuck off to perform acts of philanthropy? Did it rescue pale-faced dames in the dead of night, or pluck kittens and puppies from the river while she slept?

Sensing its immense popularity, Caliban opened its carapace and reared to its full height.



Her hounds joined the howl.

Bai surveyed the pack of dire-sized lightning-hounds fulminating hysterically with blue-white plasma, in the midst of which was his opponent's Death Worm.

“You're right, I shouldn’t have let you finish that spell…” the Dust Mage confessed, immensely impressed by her display.

“Don't say I didn't warn you!” Gwen smirked smugly, doing her best to ignoring the calls from the crowd to have her Worm swallow Bai wholesale.

“I'd advise caution, Miss Song. Be careful now.” Bai gave her a heads up before activating his supplementary spell. “I have no wish to shame or harm a future teammate - Dust Tendrils!”

The remaining three pillars burst into activity as columns of semi-opaque tentacles split from the solidified dust, seeking to entangle her deerhounds.

Instantly, her body grew rigid. What good humour the duel had afforded became instantly quashed by the stifling sight of prehensile tendrils reaching out to ensnare her hounds, and mayhap herself.

The intensity of the sight was such that, for a second, she forgot to breathe.

“Caliban!” Gwen commanded her Familiar. Her tone changed. Gone was the come hither character of teasing and taunting. There was a coldness in her voice now, one unbecoming in a friendly duel.

Her Familiar grew into its Gila form, flooding the space of the duelling arena with its Void-aura, sending those standing too close reeling back with nausea. One girl who’d been busy filming Caliban with a Lumen-recorder straight away lost her orientation, slamming her head on the transparent pane before been rescued by the club’s security members.

Heeding their Master's mental cue, her dogs attacked. Snapping and snarling at the tendrils, forcing their way through.

“Dust Bolt!”

Caliban opened its maw and took Bai’s low-tier offensive right in its open maw, not even slowing down as it pushed forward.

The improbable sight brought a second round of jubilation from the crowd.

“Lightning Storm!” Gwen threw down her newest AoE, flooding the duelling arena with motes of lightning. Her Evocation synergised well with her elemental dogs, empowering them while Ariel, even tucked in its pocket-space, ensured that Gwen's Lightning strikes fizzed before they reached Caliban, neutralising the Dust-motes surrounding them.

“Tomb Wall!”

Bai's Signature Abjuration possessed an unpropitious title, though those who knew the Tei Clan history also know that they were tasked with guarding the rumoured tomb of Mozi, arguably one of the most beloved scholar-sages of the One Hundred Sects Era. As for Clan Tei itself, the stewards of Mozi's teachings walked the Path of Universal Ai, claiming that one must possess empathy for all beings under heaven.

A semi-dome barrier-Shield erected itself in front of Bai, its dust-clad surface dulling her elemental assault even as it repelled her hounds. Inscriptions, likely from the teaching of ancient Sage-Kings, ran the length of its surface.

Caliban slammed into the outer shell, though the impact seemed to jar her Familiar more so than the Dust Mage.

Fucking turtle! Gwen swore under her breath. She hated fighting Abjurers for this precise reason.

"Caliban, Onslaught!"

Her vitality dropped, but she wasn’t finished yet. She had to rid the bad taste of those tendrils from her mouth. For reasons she could likely guess at, each blast of magic against the Shield was therapeutic.

“Wall of Lighting!”

Another layer of lashing electricity joined the first.

“Lightning Tendrils!”

Arm-thick band of lightning, half-a-dozen of them, began to beat the tomb-shell like a drum.

By now, her dogs had exhausted a second pillar. Freed from the harassment of the grasping tendrils, they turned their attention to clawing and nipping at remaining two, wrangling the tendrils and keeping them from Caliban.

Caliban meanwhile, tore chunks of shale-like material from the Shield, making steady progress through the dust-igloo, its void-clad claws removing more material than Bai could replenish.

“SHAAA!” Caliban screeched.

What irked her was that, with Detect Magic deadened by the Dust-barrier, she had no idea what Bai was doing inside his shell-Shield. At the same time, her Divination Sigil remained as silent as Bai's proverbial tomb.

Still, sensing that she needed to end this before Bai encircled his wagons with even more Abjuration and Enchantment, she portioned just enough vitality to Caliban to began his terrible work.


Her Familiar's jaws distended, opening it impossibly wide, it attempted to swallow the entire two-meter semi-sphere Bai had erected, transforming itself into a grotesque, bloated, mega-mouth croaker.

The crowd went wild.

Gwen hoped that Bai would give up before he accidentally disappeared into the Void. How the fuck was she going to explain that to the authorities? It was a game of chicken! Caliban was only supposed to nibble the tip?

She could forfeit as well, arguably a viable option, confessing that the Bai's barrier was beyond her ability to penetrate. But why should SHE be the one to yield? If anything, the ball was in the turtle Mage's court.

“Yield if you want to live!” She shouted with the aid of her Illusion Sigil, hoping her words could penetrate the Tomb-Shield. “Caliban's not going to hold back; it doesn’t know how!”

If the man responded, she couldn’t hear it. Between her thunderbolts, her dogs and Caliban, they may as well be playing Chinese Whispers inside in a tin-shed pelted by hail.

Then Bai's answer came.


A powerful repulsion emitted from within Bai's Shield.
Like peeling skin from a bulbous grape, Caliban bloated, then burst.

A flood of Void-mana splattered against the Force Barrier. As one, the audience retreated.

“Cali!” Gwen spluttered. She had seen Caliban banished, but she had never seen it defeated so utterly and with such devastation.

Caliban attempted to recollect itself.
The demand for vitality from her splattered fiend was immense! It was as though Caliban was trying to reconstitute its entire body from scratch, asking for no less than a Horror Stag’s worth of her life-force.

But its demand was impossible. Gwen wasn’t going to give up all of her collated vitality just so she could win a casual duel, not when she still had other trump cards to play.

“Caliban, get back!” She unsummoned her piecemeal worm, returning it to recuperate in her Pocket Dimension. “Lightning Bolt!”

Bai’s Shield was positively crackling with energy now, so much that the Dust motes could hardly be seen underneath the plasma. Still, the dust barrier remained.

A sinking feeling began to engender in her chest.

This turtle Mage! She snarled. He was making a mockery of her offence!

“Hounds! Attack!”

While her dogs harassed the Dust Shield, invigorated by the static motes of electrified air, Gwen decided to inaugurate a dog-move of her own. Arguably, she had the Dust Mage pinned with her hounds. If so, she could afford the precious ten-odd seconds she needed for Cloud Kill, ensuring nowhere was safe for the Abjurer to emerge from his shell.


A halo of hallowing energy burst from the Dust Shield’s surroundings, hitting her deerhounds with a disruptive resonance that dispersed the Conjuration algorithms holding them in place.

The feedback from having six dogs dispelled at once sent Gwen reeling on her heels, staggering backwards. She had experienced having Caliban banished several times now, but never six of her mind-linked dogs simultaneously.

Perhaps more distressingly, her Cloud Kill fizzled, sending a surge of unspent mana back into her Astral Body. Comparatively, the Abjurer may as well have shoved a tube of wasabi up her nose.

“Twelve Peaks of Taishan!”

Though the spell was impressive sounding, Bai could only conjure six of the twelve potential pillars, each representing the resting place of a Scholar Bureaucrat the Clan of Tei defended at the end of the Spring-Autumn period. If the Dust Mage's father were to manifest the barrier, one could even read inscribed poems detailing the deeds of the great Sage-Bureaucrats who had chosen Taishang as their resting place.

By the time Gwen circulated enough Almudj’s Essence to recover from her mind-blank, six pillars had fallen into place.

From each pole, spectral tendrils reached out for her limbs.

The very sight sent shivers up her spine, dredging up unpleasant memories. Drawing upon the anger of having her Familiars destroyed and dispelled, she pushed past the paranoia of being molested once again by a Dust-wielder. She was no longer the weak waif, she was a dragon!

“Dimension Door!”

“Eight Pillar Formation!”

Gwen reappeared on the opposite side of the arena, though by then Bai had relocated his pillars equal-distantly throughout the modest-sized space, just a bit larger than a tennis court.

She couldn't help but grimly lament the irony that she had sought to trap the man within her AOE only a moment prior, and now she was fast stuck within Bai's battlefield.

“Gwen Song!” Bai called out, opening his Shield. “Call it a draw?”

For some reason, the word ‘Draw’ struck her like a slap to the face.

The Dust Mage's face was well worn and fatigued. With her limited Divination, she could sense that his Astral presence was weaker than before, indicating her competitor was short on mana. Though Dust muted elemental energy, it took a toll to dissolved her lightning.

Gwen's eyes burned, her throat constricted.

“Draw? Not on your life!”

A sound more akin to a growl emitted from her throat as unbridled Dragon-fear fanned out from her Astral Body. Outside, safe behind the Force-Barrier, the observers saw a tangible ripple undulating the motes of dust filling the arena. Those closest to the rink felt a sudden weakness, forcing them to their knees. For those unfortunate enough to both be struck by Caliban’s demise as well as Gwen’s dragon-fear, their eyes rolled back in their heads, their consciousness retracting into their minds in a reflexive act of self-preservation.

“Gwen, no!” Petra called out from below; her cousin was senselessly caught up! She wasn’t herself. “Bai! Gwen’s not in her right mind! Don’t hurt her!”

“Petra, shut it!” Her cousin snarled, eyes blazing with viridescent vitality. “Ariel!”

“Gwen! STOP!”

Ariel materialised amidst an emerald blaze of vivifying lightning.

A hush fell over the crowd.

A Kirin?
A Mao-blessed Kirin?!

The stag horns! The noble mien! The whiskers! The fish-scale fur! The front hooves and the lion’s rump!

Ariel swished its tail regally.


A cacophony of cries, jubilant beyond belief, erupted across the assembly.


High on the stage, Gwen was oblivious that the cat was out of the bag. She circulated her Almudj's Essence, readying her death-blow. If the turtle-Mage could survive her most potent offence, she was happy to bow down and admit her inferiority.

Then, to her complete and utter surprise, Bai dispelled his Shield-cum-barrier entirely.

“I think that’s enough, Miss Song.” The Dust Mage back away, opening his hands to signal the duel's end. “Good Fight.”

“No!” Gwen snarled, sending Ariel drifting downwards, crackling with Lightning. “It’s not over.”

“It is.” Bai glanced at Petra, then back at Gwen. “We’ll duel again when you’re in better control of yourself.”

“Bullshit! I-“

Bai dispelled his Pillars.

He now faced her with nothing but his fleshy frame, in front of Ariel’s capabilities, the man may as well be stark naked.

The audience below applauded Tei's great mental fortitude. True to form, Mozi's teachings had not escaped the descendants of Clan Tei. The temperament and unshakable calmness possessed by its members were known to all.


Gwen faltered before she could finish her ridicule.

There was something warm dribbling on to her face and a taste of iron in her mouth. Reflexively, she touched a hand to her nose, only to realise she was bleeding profusely from both nostrils.


Petra leapt onto the stage but became rebuffed by the Force Barrier. To the Mineral Mage's dismay, Bai's professional demeanour ensured that until Gwen dispelled her Kirin, he was going to keep the barrier up to protect the audience.

“Is she alright?” someone asked worriedly. “She’s bleeding all over the place.”
“Looks like a spell-overcharge to me.”
“Poor girl,” a senior remarked. “Doesn’t she know Abjurers make the worst possible match-up for Creature Mages?”
“She probably thought she was testing Senior Tei.” Someone else, a Duelling Club senior, laughed out loud. “When in reality, it was Senior Tei who’s testing her!”
"I liked her better when she was giving us a show, haha."

Up on stage, half her face covered in blood, the words from the audience dug into Gwen's paper-thin skin like stilettoes. She now knew she had read the situation wrong from start to finish. She had underestimated her senior.

If so, why didn't she yield?

The eyes of the crowd bore into her tender flesh. Her flesh grew scarlet with embarrassment, more so than the blood dribbling down her dress, covering her hands. The duel wasn't over yet.

“Dimension Door!”

The spell was on her lips before she even realised it consciously. In one leap, she had broken the university's cardinal rules, disappearing from the barrier and reappearing two hundred odd meters away atop a grassy knoll.

“Dimension Door!”

“Dimension Door!”

In her present condition, three was her limit.

She reappeared on the lawn opposite the Dean’s office, a place that forbad transit, picnics and passage, kept forever lush by nature-magic.

FUCK! She fell to her knees onto the lawn. SHIT! What the hell had she just done? The best thing she ought to do now was calm the fuck down, run the hell back, and apologise to Tei Bai, to Petra, and everyone who had to bear witness to her poor sportsmanship.


The call came from her mind.

Ariel was appeasing the crowd by letting them inspect its noble visage. Petra was with her Familiar, and Tei Bai was there too.

Thank God, Gwen exhaled. She owed them big time.
Now, why the hell did she go and do all that for? Was the milk bad? Neither she nor Petra paid much attention to these things.

Was it her Lightning? Or her draconic-Essence from Almudj? Had her proficiency risen to such a point that she was no longer in control of her impulses? She touched a hand to Ayxin's scale, toying with the idea of tearing it from the base of her neck.


Her Message Device rang. The first was the Dean. The second was Petra.

“Sir?” Gwe knew she had to make a choice.

“Gwen...” the Dean’s voice was ice. Gwen had never heard the Dean so pissed off. “My office, now! AND GET OFF MY LAWN!”


Ellen stayed away from Gwen as she sheepishly slinked into the office.

“Do you believe yourself untouchable, Miss Song?” The Dean scowled at her, his usually pleasant face was creased with disappointment.

“No Sir!” Gwen replied. She fucked up, she was in trouble, and there was no denying her culpability.

“I know you’re young and you think yourself a prodigy, but do you believe rules don’t apply to personages such as yourself? That kind of slippery slope makes for a dangerous frame of mind! Mages who don’t think the rules apply to them become a menace to our society!”

“I am sorry!” Gwen flinched. She lowered her eyes coyly.

“Don’t try that with me!” the Dean snapped. “I have two daughters and an Ellen! You think they don’t try to make moon-eyes at me to get out of trouble?”

Gwen straightened her spine. Yes, that was a stupid move. She was in an educator’s office, not her supervisor’s suite at her old consultancy. This arrogance was unbecoming of her. She needed time to work the dragon-juice out of her system, let the static drain from her body.

“Hmmph! The first Dimension Door merits a warning.”

Gwen exhaled with immense relief.

“The second, temporary deferment.”

She tensed.

“The third… academic suspension.”

Her eyes widened, then her lips quivered. That’s not how infractions worked, was it? Wasn’t it each instance, and not each ‘spell’ cast? It was her first incident! She should be receiving a warning!

But, Gwen knew better than to interrupt the Dean.

“Well?” the Dean barked. “GET OUT!”

Taking a chance, Gwen stood rock still, taking on the guise of a new statue newly added to the Dean’s office.

“Bah!” The Dean delayed his response a few good seconds before mocking her obvious attempt at playing his sympathy. “Clever girl. You think you know everything, don't you?”

Gwen wondered if squeezing out a few tears would exacerbate or relieve her circumstances.

Within her mind’s eye, Ariel inferred presently that it was being patted by students all lined up in a row. From what she could make out via her Familiar's Empathic-Link, Petra was with Bai, who had made the duelling platform into a petting station. Even now, amidst cries of ‘Lord Kirin!’ Ariel’s prideful energy fed back into her Astral Body.

The very thought of thousands of strangers touching Ariel’s soft frog-pads and running their fingers through its fluffy tail set her teeth on edge; the annoyance was akin having a bone-deep itch she couldn’t scratch.

“… I am that boring, am I?” the Dean demanded dangerously.

Luo could scarcely believe the girl was staring into the middle distance in the middle of his lecture. The lass was truly lawless! He had been too easy on her, given her too much leeway!

Gwen’s eyes refocused.

Dean Luo looked as though he could choke a Gwen or two and still had anger to spare.

FUCK A DUCK, was the first thought that came to her mind. She had drifted off! It was true what Murphy said, whatever was the worst that could happen was almost always bound to happen; the furtherer one was up shit-creek, the more likely their skiff was to overturn.

“I am not going to suspend our 'best hope' at passing for the Asian Sector qualifier of the IIUC,” the Dean continued annoyedly. “But though you have averted death, a punishment is both merited and will do you good.”

“Sir!” Gwen lowered her head. “I’ll accept any punishment.”

“You are to scrub every bathroom in the university…”

“…” Gwen baulked at the thought. Despite her best efforts, she glared at the Dean.

“Your sincerity astounds me, Miss Song,” the Dean sighed. Bloody Lightning Mages, he lamented. Why can't she be an easy going Mud Mage?

“I’ll do it.” Gwen immediately thought of her Cleansing Spell-cube. Let’s say there are two hundred bathrooms, that’s only 200 LDMs. That’s not so bad.

“I am joking.” The Dean shook his head dejectedly. “I don’t think you realise the damage you've done. I said it’s up to your discretion if you wish to demonstrate your abilities before the IIUC, but what you’ve attempted with Mr Tei was near-exposing your whole hand! If Bai hasn’t made the right call, the whole university would have seen your best attack!”

“But everyone saw what happened in Hangzhou,” Gwen remarked sulkily.

“A Frontier town, in private company!" Luo shouted in her face. "Fudan is an international university! Do you want everyone from Oceania to England to know your trump card? What if every other team includes an Abjurer like Mr Tei? What will you do?”

Gwen lowered her head, taking the tongue lashing in stride.
She would have appeared entirely humble were it not for the fact that Ariel's mind-link was tickling her skin.

“I am sorry, Sir. Truly,” she apologised. “I am sorry I disappointed you.”

“Your punishment will be aiding Tei. In the tradition of Mao’s teachings. In all honesty, I want to send you away for re-education, temper that pride of yours, but we have no more time to waste. In addition, I want a 5,000-word self-critical report on my desk by next week. Now go and apologise to your peers.”

“Yessir.” Gwen readily agreed.

She had lived long enough to realise that self-awareness and criticism wasn’t an easy pearl of wisdom to come by. There were benefits to knocking oneself down a peg, for the alternative was inevitable hubris.

Icarus may have gotten close to the sun, but hitting the sea at terminal velocity would've been no different from slamming into concrete.


A note from Wutosama

Chapter Ref :: The tall poppy gets cut, the nail that sticks out gets hammered, 

Bonus ::  Gwen's Outfits  
Glossary and Magic System :: Glossary 

Voting for the novel :: Voting button  


About the author


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

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