Now considerably calmer, Gwen and Walken agreed that they would reconvene the next day to continue her lessons, each desiring space and time to digest their new partnership.
Once outside, the two parted with an appearance of amiability, drawing mixed glances from the training hall's administration staff. Since arriving a semester ago, Fudan's Worm Handler had become notorious for her draconian training regime. Some admired her panache, others her appearance, but most of all, they drooled over the troop of Lecturers and Instructors that visited her on the regular. Perhaps, some joked sourly; there was good cause for her auspicious moniker.
As for Gwen herself, she first made sure Walken was truly away, then conveyed herself to the privacy of the back gardens, shivering uncontrollably while her adrenaline receded. The recovery was gradual, supplemented by the spring-time sun, her shuddering nerves subsiding as sensation returned to her clammy fingers. When she felt well enough, an additional injection of Almudj’s Essence fortified her nerves so that she no longer felt like throwing up. In that final moment of confrontation with Walken, she had been fully prepared to Dimension Door into the Dean’s Office, damning all consequence.
All in all, she had learned something today - it was mentally, physically, and spiritually exhausting to play the Lady Macbeth. That and she really should have held off on the XL milk-tea-plus-cream of human kindness before meeting with Walken.
After a few minutes, her legs stabilised, Gwen mentally checked her schedule, then returned home for some much-deserved lie-down.
The same afternoon, Gwen found herself back at the office. Still buzzed by the aftermath of taming a shrewish Magister, she slipped into her office-garbs, hoping the monotony of work would put her mind at ease.
In the three months since her induction, the development of Tonglv had ballooned. As Professor Ma had suspected, it was impossible to keep the news of the project’s profitability under wraps, which meant by now the Clans and Houses had flocked to Nantong like vultures to carrion.
So far, with sufficient foresight, the triumvirate of Patriarch Fung, Magister Chen and Vice-Chair Tu, backed by James Ma’s oversight, had kept the accounts arrayed.
When her Quarterly-Progress Report reached its final ten pages, however, her attention was drawn to a segment under the sub-title Personnel Liquidation, marked under Human Resource. When Gwen began to read the record in detail, she came vis-a-vis with no less than a hundred names.
Chen Hui - Embezzlement
Lei De - Fraud
Zhan Shun - Fraud, Bribery and Corruption, Manslaughter
Tan Zhong - Embezzlement
Fan Huan - Bribery and Corruption.
Dong Luoyang - Market abuse and Insider Trading
Liang Liuxian - Embezzlement
Zhu Zhenya - Fraud, Insider Trading
Xuan Chao - Fraudulent Record Keeping
Yan Ming - Fraudulent Record Keeping
The list went on for pages.
Those whose crimes were below 1000 HDMs received a strike in their Party record, meaning their careers as industry officials were effectively over.
For those whose offence exceeded 1000 HDMs, the standard punishment was being earmarked for the Front, returning only after achieving notable contributions to the state.
For those with stacked-indictments, condemnation was life-long.
Of the hundred people, ninety were Mages. The sight of names paired with crimes and a summation of their punishments was enough to make her feel ill. How can these people be so thoughtless in their pursuit of money? Did they think Patriarch Fung would tolerate their parasitic existences when the man had put his whole Clan on the line?
“Ruì.” She fired an enquiry at her assistant, morbid in her curiosity. “How much crystal currency until you're willing to defraud us? What would it take for you to falsify your reports?”
“I would never!” Ruì pulled back from her chair, her face alarmed and afraid. “I am doing everything I can to be of use to you, ma’am!”
“It’s hypothetical,” she told Ruì not to worry, that the PA should entertain her boss’s curiosity if she could. “A thousand HDMs? Ten thousand? Effi? Terence? How about you guys?”
Effi was the more effervescent of her other two NoM workers. A petite girl originally from Nanking, she had a heart-shaped face, long slitted eyes, and a bookish demeanour.
“I wouldn’t want to risk it,” Effi stated warily, wondering if this was a test. “However, if I was desperate: like for example I needed a rare potion for my mother, or if one of my siblings Awoke to magic and needed tuition, I would at least think about it. So it's not an amount for me, but a matter of need. The amount would be just what I need.”
“How about you, Terence?”
“I would do it only if I am confident I can get away with it,” the young man raised his hand. “To be perfectly honest ma’am, knowing what we’re doing here and what Professor Ma’s doing, I wouldn’t dream of it. I think most of the offenders on the list have no idea that there are hundreds and soon to be thousands of NoMs working through every receipt, payslip and invoice. There's another problem though: I don’t think us NoMs have any way to spend that many crystals other than land, but the acquisition of property leaves a huge paper trail.”
“Very perceptive, Terence. Well done. Ruì, back to you.” Gwen regarded her first assistant with interest.
Ruì quaked under Gwen’s keen gaze. For some reason, her Mistress terrified her.
“I… I can’t.” Ruì shook her head. "I love this job!"
“Aww, I won’t force you,” Gwen consoled the poor woman with a few well-placed platitudes and a well-earned hug. She apologised as well, realising she had traumatised the girl. In her eyes, Ruì was a perfect ISTP follower on the Briggs-Myers scale: she possessed uncanny attention to detail, was loyal to a fault, and was meticulous with managing Gwen’s timetable, so much so that she had entertained moving Ruì downstairs into Gouding B1. For any sensible manager, the PA was a keeper.
As for the others, more so than Effi, it was Terence’s answer that resonated with Gwen’s projection that having NoM accountants blind-audit Tonglv’s financial statements was a stroke of genius.
Simply put - the NoMs had nothing to spend Crystals on. Their greatest wish was to live in a friendly, upscale District, have access to good quality food, clean air and water, quasi-magical amenities, and a chance for their children to have the same.
They had no use for mountains of currency. For an NoM, procuring an excess of wealth wasn't a boon, it was a recipe for attracting disaster.
In comparison, a Mage, a Cabal, a House, a Clan, or even a Tower, had infinite uses for currency; so much so that all the crystals pouring out of Tonglv wouldn’t satisfy the appetite of those seeking centuries of prosperity for their kith and kin.
“Where’s Ken and Dai?" Gwen changed the subject. "I’d thought they be back by now.”
“Sir Dai has gone to negotiate with the Yellow-River Trade Consortium, and Sir Ken is sending off reports at the CCP Tower,” Ruì informed her boss.
"Oh, good on them," Gwen acknowledged that the two weren’t slacking off, then resumed the final few pages of her quarterly report.
… Sun Kun - Bribery and Corruption.
Xiao Cheng - Bribery and Corruption.
Xiong Su - Embezzlement.
Zi Fung - Fraud.
Lang Fung - Bribery and Corruption, Insider Trading.
Meiling Fung - Bribery and Corruption, Insider Trading.
Three Fungs, Gwen paused, thinking of a Chinese idiom her Grandfather had muttered once.
'Men die for greed as birds die for feed.'
How keen the Confucians were, she pondered as she stowed the report, and how cynically astute. For some reason, she had a feeling that the first century of offenders was only the beginning. Between now and the next half-decade, the Front would receive a flood of volunteers.
“I’d keep an eye out at any rate,” Petra warned her.
“Agreed.” Richard took a pull from a longneck. Her cousin had already added his piece, praising Gwen's quick thinking. “Seriously, that's some slick work; I didn't think you had it in you.”
"Its payback for trying to malign my Master," Gwen explained. After a moment, she floated the Message Orb between them. “What should I do with this?”
“Keep blackmailing him,” Richard proposed without so much as a pause for breath. “He’s a Lightning Magister. Get him to spill all his spells in exchange for the safety of what remains of his reputation. I dare say there are a few hundred CCs of savings there.”
“I disagree.” Petra shook her head. “You don’t want to insult Magister Walken more than you have already, Gwen. First, it's not like you. What you're doing is more akin to what they do in Moscow: manipulating your enemies via Kompromat. But you don't have a Tower behind you. You have to remember that even a dog can scale a wall if they’re desperate enough, and Walken is an established Grey Faction Magister. If you keep pushing him, you'll both lose.”
“Hmm.” Gwen chewed her lip. “Should I give him the orb as a gesture of good faith?”
"Naw," Richard intervened. “He’s never going to be an ally we can trust; I don't mind treading on his toes.”
“Let me stop you there, Richard," Petra interjected before Gwen could respond to her Australian cousin. "Gwen, so long as Walken believes the gains outweigh the cost, he’ll genuinely try to help you. For you, the best thing to do is to cut him loose once your relationship is over. If you hold onto his Kompromat, he'll spend the entire time, now and later, scheming to get it back.”
“Petra has a point.” Gwen turned to Richard.
“I’d rather you Consume him if you at that point.” Richard smirked. “He’s got to be at least tier 8, right. We could use some high-tier magic in our matches.”
The two girls regarded their cousin, mildly alarmed.
“Imagine that,” Richard continued. “It'd be pretty funny if you could launch a strategic-class AoE at our opponents during the IIUC.”
“No time." Petra popped the Water Mage's bubble. "Gwen would have to finish third-year Spellcraft theory, take Advanced Mandala, complete Spell-Shaping 3004, then apply for a post-graduate position studying Strategic-Class Glyph Arrays in Europe. Unless Caliban gains the ability to 'consume' textbooks, we won’t be seeing anything beyond tier 6 at the IIUC. Not to mention Gwen needs Walken to take her through the contest, there are many nuances you and I cannot know."
“Ah, you're all logic, Pats,” Richard chided their Mineral Mage cousin. "You're no fun."
“We're not here to have 'fun',” Petra fired back. "But I don't want to argue with you, so let's change the subject. Gwen, what’s the deal with your Affinity predicament?”
“I have to grow into it,” Gwen sighed. “That or balance my Affinity.”
“Hey, you can trust us to watch your back.” Richard raised his hand. “Permission to restrain you if you turn half-dragon.”
“I’ll keep looking,” Petra promised her cousin. “There’s bound to be something. You can't the first person with this problem.”
“Thanks.” Gwen hugged her two cousins close to her bosom. “As for the Walken front, I think I've got a good idea. Pats, do you know what a sponge cake is?"
The next day, Gwen finished her Divination and Economics tutorials, then joined Walken in the late afternoon at the Training Hall.
The duo began their conversation with great care, stepping around one another like a pair of paranoid-drakes. When after a while, Gwen slid forward a Message Orb, Walken raised his brow with genuine surprise.
"I appreciate the gesture." The Magister glanced at the Orb before pushing it back. "But allow me to make the same gesture. Why don't you keep it? It'll be a layer of insurance."
"It'll help the both of us focus, put our mind at ease," Walken remarked. His expression remained composed, his lips thin and pressed.
She stowed the Orb.
Now considerably unwound, the two laid out the minutes of their meeting, of which so far numbered three:
Her Affinity-trait dilemma.
Her Void-Affinity power-up.
And details regarding the IIUC.
After a few false-starts, Walken came into a well-worn groove, demonstrating why the Dean had chosen him for the job.
“Unique solutions service unique problems,” Walken continued from where they’d left off. “If you recall, Affinity-Traits vary from Mage to Mage: it's as much a product of nurture as it is a problem of nature. In most instances, elemental-sympathy is acquired over a long interval, giving an Elementalist plenty of time to figure out their quirks. To take myself as an example: despite our unfortunately hot-headed kerfuffle yesterday, I am habitually in control of my inclinations. As one aligned to Elemental Air, I am often aloof and distanced from my peers, seldom feeling attached, even to my children. When Aella matured, I had to also contend with the renowned pridefulness of Lightning, as well as a certain stubbornness associated with Dragon-kin. Unlike you, however, it has taken me five decades to exceed a natural affinity of 6. As for Aella, our two-decade history grants me a conditional and proportional Lightning of 8.”
“Goodness.” Gwen made a face. “How do you deal with it?”
“A mental technique is one solution. A method that allows me to distance myself from my immediate impulses. It was tiring when I first began, but the human mind is surprisingly malleable. If you find me sometimes cold, or perhaps divorced and unfeeling, my parallel meditation is to blame.”
That explains Walken's charcoal-eyes, Gwen realised. Walken always hid behind a mask of observance, measuring the effectiveness of every word uttered from his mouth.
“I don’t think that’s possible for me.” Gwen shook her head. She'd rather not turn into Walken 2.0.
“Very well. If you had access to the School of Enchantment, you could also medicate with a Calm Emotion,” Walken suggested. “Or you can custom-order a Magic Item from our Faction’s Craftsmen which self-medicates when the need arises.”
“Let's keep stop-gap measures on the back-burner,” she parried Walken’s second suggestion.
“Does that mean no potions, Geas or Curses?”
“Hexes,” Walken explained. “There are certain Cabals in Eastern Europe that still practice the old arts.”
“No thanks,” Gwen refuted the Magister’s advice. Pharmacological and quasi-magical solutions would have been acceptable, but not if they evolved into a dependency.
Across the table, Walken kept from commenting on her stubbornness, or the fact that after a dozen witches down Caliban's hatch, Gwen could potentially hex herself.
“Very well then.” Walken exhaled gently. “Temperance and willpower it is.”
“You mentioned something about my Familiars,” Gwen reminded the man. “You said my Master planned something around my future Familiars. Can’t I plug my leaks by doing something with Ariel and Caliban? Whatever happened to that?”
“You happened,” Walken grumbled, flexing his off-hand. “But I digress. If you want to know, then I shall tell you. However, you mustn’t deride or grow upset at what I am about to tell you."
“We'll see. Let us begin with some theory. Earlier, I noticed you used the term ‘leak’ - an apt if incomplete metaphor. For Mages, our Astral Soul naturally ‘permeates’ mana into our physical body, where it then dissipates into the Material Realm. With Primary Elementalists, the 'trait' is prominent because the body of all living beings naturally consists of Primary and Positive elements. The traits we observe are derived from nurture and nature. Earthen Mages find their bodies hardened and fortified, but the phenomenon is equal-parts elemental-sympathy and best-practice body-training to maximise Affinity. Likewise, Fire Mages grow resistant to heat and cold physically and excessively prone to passion. But did you know that if Fire Mages continuously suppress their impulses, their Affinity decreases? It's quite the dilemma. As for Water Mages, they grow averse to dry environs and are said to be easy going - but really, they're emulating the stereotype, falling into a mould of expectation. If so, are Water Mages laid-back and easy going, or did they learn to behave like that? Now, as for Quasi-Elementalists like us, our metabolism becomes hastened. We grow thirsty and hungry quickly-" Walken wetted his lips. "Suffer from insomnia, and have a reputation for pride and possessiveness-”
“Speaking of hunger - I bought a sponge cake.” Blushing, Gwen materialised an enormous orange sponge-cake, an Australian staple, and a tea set for the table. As Walken had remarked, they had been at it for an hour, and their mutual Affinity had made them peckish. “I figured some nostalgic Aussie-fare would be a good ice breaker if things got awkward.”
Walken stared at the pink-orange cake, transfixed.
“It’s not poisoned,” Gwen assured him, cutting a slice, crumbling the hundreds and thousands. "That's icing sugar."
“Ah, well, thank you.” Walken took a slice, touched by the kindness of buttery dough. “I was not expecting… yes. Very good. Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it.” Gwen took a generous slice for herself, then dug into the sugary treat. It had taken Petra and her the better part of an evening to figure out the batter. In the end, it was Richard who baked the cake, folding the flour into the egg-froth with the deftness of a patissier. “You were saying?”
“Oh, yes.” Walken swallowed before he continued. “You and I, of course, are additionally blessed by Draconic-Essence, which adds another layer of complication. Yours is purer than mine: Aella’s blessing, alas, accounts for little more than a commanding presence and a few decades of healthy living. Since you’re capable of generating Dragon-fear, I’d imagine it simmering at your throat at the slightest provocation.”
“The Essence has got quite the kick, that’s for sure,” Gwen confessed.
“Now, having rejected conventional solutions - Excuse me - Heat!” Walken re-heated his tea, added a spot of milk, then took a satisfying sip. As an Englishman, cold tea was worse than no tea. “I propose an unconventional method involving both of your Familiars.”
“Oh?” Gwen cocked her head slightly. Had it taken a sponge cake for Walken to spill the beans? If so, she should get Richard onto Lamingtons next. "Go on."
“First, are you able to exchange mana with your Familiars?”
“I can give them mana,” Gwen replied. “It’s a one-way street though.”
“To empower and engage their innate abilities?”
“Yeah, Ariel transforms when fed,” Gwen explained. “It used to have a mongoose form, though these days it goes through ten shades of Kirin, pending on... how I feel, the time of day... and other things.”
“An enviable guise nonetheless,” Walken remarked. “And Caliban?”
“Caliban has many forms, the most powerful of which takes a quarter of my mana and virtually all of my vitality," Gwen answered, conscious of her evasion.
“Good. Now, can your Familiars feed their mana or Essence back into your Astral Body?”
“No.” Gwen shook her head.
"Can you usurp or command the return of unspent mana and Essence?"
"No. I had consulted with Magister Wen, Instructor Chen, and even Magister Birch as well. They said that it was impossible without higher Affinity with my Familiars."
“Oh? I am surprised Hufei Chen wasn't more specific.” Walken raised a brow. “But I suppose that’s no surprise. As an Instructor, he doesn't owe you an answer by any means, not to mention he lacks the necessary School of Magic to verify a potential solution. You see, Gwen, exchange of mana and Essence from a Familiar requires synergy with the School of Transmutation.”
Conjuration and Transmutation? She did a double-take. The only Conjurer-Transmuter Gwen knew of was Lulan, though the girl's Iron-Heart technique was far divorced from modern Spellcraft.
“The original spell, Familiar Transfusion, was a way to use one’s Familiar as additional mana-pool,” Walken explained. “Unfortunately, the original designer wasn’t a Creature Mage and merely employed his cuy as a means to squirrel away an emergency supply.”
“A cuy?” She cocked her head, imagining a monstrously mystical creature.
“It's er... a rodent,” Walken explained, making a shape with his hands like a man moving an invisible mouse. “Akin to a hamster.”
“Mmm, yes,” Walken cleared his throat, thinking he'd likely have given up Conjuration altogether if gerbils were the best he could manage. “BUT - his spell had a propensity to incapacitate his Familiar while in use.”
Gwen imagined a jiggly, puffed up, balloon-shaped cuy.
“For now, I propose that you could use Ariel to ‘stow’ your mana-leaks, allowing you to manage your Lightning-Affinity and Draconic-Essence.”
“But then Ariel would be stuck in its Kirin Form,” Gwen noted.
“Only in combat, while you balance Void and Lightning elements within your Astral Body,” Walken nodded. “You have tapped into tier 2 Divination, yes?”
“Good.” Walken nibbled on the sponge cake, then dabbed his lip with a pocket-hankie. “Use Perceive Self to set a gauge of your mana-mix, then adjust accordingly. Of course, the prototype Familiar Transfusion won’t do. I’ll have to redesign it so that its transfusion and storage capacities are diminished enough to service your combat needs. After that, in the heat of combat at least, your Affinities should achieve a temporary balance.”
"Question. Does learning Transfusion mean I can syphon vitality from Caliban?"
"I don't see why not."
“As simple as that?”
“Synergy is never that simple,” Walken answered blatantly. “It'll be a work in progress. Do you always count your cockatrices before they hatch? Remember, it’s all conjecture at this point. We’re breaking new ground.”
“I see.” Gwen sipped from her cup: as one brought up in an apartment like a peasant, she drank her tea cold. “One more thing, Eric, can you teach me Perceive Self?”
“But you know it.”
“It's not my spell to teach!” Walken growled. "Are you attempting to entrap me with intellectual-theft as well?"
“Ah...” Gwen blushed. She was too used to Magisters teaching her open-sourced spells or giving up their unique magic as favours. “Sorry.”
“Hmmph. On that front, I want to say something for your benefit, so you better keep your earlier promise. If you want a cost-effect end to your problems, buy some Demi-human fodder for Caliban. We can't find you Void-beings or creatures to Consume, but you can upgrade Caliban to a humanoid form. I believe that may have been Henry's intention,” Walken stated stoically. “Before you start your bleeding-heart complaints, note that these Demi-humans are chattel either way, they're meat for the scholarly inclined Magister whether you buy them or not: if so, why not you?"
"There. Think about it. That's the last and only time I will implore you.”
And with that, the congenial atmosphere turned frigid.
Walken's captive audience of one stabbed her next piece of cake. Her advisor wasn't illogical, but the man was morally bankrupt. Of course, she had to acknowledge the hypocrisy of having Consumed Merfolk when she had travelled with Jun, as well as a sapient Dragon-kin. In practice, her revulsion over Walken was no better than someone with a belly full of Kobe beef campaigning for PETA. But the act of purchasing Demi-human ‘stock’ to test a hypothesis? Even if she verified Caliban’s ascension would work wonders for her dilemma, could she consent to such senselessness? In a round-about way, Walken's logos was that trafficked children got abused anyhow: so it may as well be her having a spot of fun: after all, no greater evil had been accomplished this day! How the hell was that an acceptable code of conduct? Her Master would rise from Sufina's Grot to spank her black and blue! The Tower would accuse her of Necromancy!
They drank their drinks.
“I had a curious epiphany about your potential approach to the IIUC last night,” Walken suddenly changed the subject, a move Gwen gladly welcomed. “You and your Familiars are infamous up and down all the campuses in Shanghai. If so, why not abuse this fact? In my opinion, excess and arrogance should form the basis of your IIUC approach.”
“?” Her lips formed an 'O'.
“Yes, indeed,” Walken smirked. “Henry wanted you to be seen and recognised by the Tower, did he not? Easier said than done, I am afraid. Between you and me, Fudan's a second-rate Magical University compared to Cambridge or Oxford, my old haunt. Though few could compare to your number of ‘Schools’ and ‘Affinity’, I dare say their Spellcraft is leagues ahead. At Oxford, any spell worth a damn would be tuned and perfected to within a half-a-syllable by generations of Magisters.”
"Can't help that." She made a face. "Alas, I am a Frontier simpleton."
“Which makes your statistics all the more enterprising," Walken persisted.
“At any rate, someone with your ‘talent’ has nothing to hide. Instead, what we should do is advertise the fact that you’re an indomitable duelist whose very existence demands an inordinate commitment of resources.”
“How the hell is that a good thing?” Gwen furrowed her brow.
“Because your skills require hard counters. In which case, your team can pre-plan spell-lists. Let me give you an example: you are in control of Morden’s Hounds, yes? Together, you’ll summon ten-odd draconic-hounds-”
“Seven plus Blood Hound plus Ariel,” Gwen reminded the Magister.
“Only eight?” Walken raised a brow mockingly. “Well, we'll work on it. Across open ground, I doubt any team would want to face Lightning-Hounds capable of pack-tactics, not to-”
“They're Draconic Deer-hounds,” Gwen interjected, feeling insulted. “Resistant to elements, strong as tier 5 Magical Beasts, telepathically controlled by Ariel...”
“… Right.” The Magister paused with annoyance before continuing. “I stand corrected. Now, let’s say you were to Mass Haste, or boomerang D-D your Familiars behind enemy lines, to flank your enemies. Likewise, on open maps, Ariel plus your dogs would prevent any ambush, track targets, or make hunting down large prey trivial."
Gwen took to the advice with a greedy, eager ear.
"The point is - I would classify you as a specialist-class of Mage - a Soloist."
"A contestant capable of besting any other Mage of an equivalent tier, using any School of Magic. There's usually a few in the competition, so one may as well be you; especially as Illusion and Mind Magic suffer from heavy restrictions."
Her eyes lit up.
"As a Soloist - your goal is to ‘eliminate’ designated targets from the competition. While your teammate's job is to 'peel away' targets for you to devour."
"Right... Concurrently, you mustn't forget that having a team member going solo is a tactic. You by yourself won't be win anything. The best teams possess synergy, and not just in Spellcraft."
Pouting, Gwen cut herself another slice of cake. In hindsight, the man was right in that her spells rarely possessed synergy, whether with her teammates or within her Spell-list. If anything, she should work out a comprehensive list of by-products from her salad-mix of elements and Essence.
“But let's return to our original topic. How to make your opponents wary of your histrionic talents and therefore offer your teammates an advantage in counter-spells.”
“I am sorry. Everything you're saying is abstract to me,” Gwen confessed. She was beginning to realise just how much more she had to learn in the next six months. “I don’t understand half of what you just said.”
“My fault, I am afraid. Public Spellcraft Education was underfunded because I vetoed Henry's package for state-schools.” Walken shook his head apologetically. “Let’s think about this pragmatically. In the instance that you face off against a team, they are bound to have ONE Abjurer. You’re not someone easily stopped without a hard-counter. Knowing you exist, opponents would have to include an Earthen, Dust, or Mineral Abjurer. In that case, let's resolve that problem-”
“One - I’ll teach you Thundering Shatter, terrible mana-efficacy, long chant-time, but it’ll do. Two - one of your peers can prepare a touch-based Shatter, Stone Shape, or Scattering Impact, pending on their schools. Three - for an open-field competition, you pick your teammates for mobility, using run-and-cast tactics to outpace their stationary defence.”
“What kind of opponents should we expect? Bloodline Mages? Noble Houses, Clanners, Cabals, that sort of thing? There’s bound to be specialisations, right?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Walken's voice rose an octave. “Spellcraft sanctioned under the Imperial Metric is a given. You can’t have random individuals throwing out long-lost mysticism with unknowable consequences. Other than that, regional competitors tend to represent geographic and historical microcosms. Asian-casters are obsessed with their secretive ‘Clan-Magic’; while European elites possess superior Spellcraft with ethnographic variations between England, Middle Europe, Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Across the Atlantic, Meso and South Americans utilise a unique class of Spirit-Magic. As for Africa - well, you'll see. The ones to watch out for tend to be North American Universities favouring Magitech. America's a young country, and when a nation builds itself via witch-burning and enslaving the previous inhabitants, it tends to favour Magic of its own making.”
“Magitech?" Gwen cooed. "The Yanks can use items?”
“Only items the contestants have constructed themselves, with a nominated teammate as an operator," Walken assuaged her dismay. "One year, they even had an NoM pilot. That had caused quite a hoot.”
“Fascinating!” Gwen tried to imagine the uproar of an NoM stepping out of a golem. “So, who’s favourited to win?”
"Who do you think?"
"Not us..." she moped.
“Very astute. I’ll start at the top. Oxford and Cambridge are finalist staples, as well as the Royal London Imperial College of Sorcery. LMU Munich is a strong contender, PSL Research and Sorbonne University in France came-close a dozen-times, won once. ETH Zurich, Utrecht U, Moscow State have all had a turn to shoot for the top. The Americans have also staked their place - Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, the illusive MIT, we should be so lucky that they cannibalise each other before being fielded onto the world stage.”
“Just how many do we have to face?” Gwen scowled. Just hearing those ground shaking names in her old world made her scalp crawl.
“Ha!” Walken amused himself at the sight of her chagrin. “Two teams per region: Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania, and Meso-South America. You have to remember; the IUCC is objective orientated. In total, the competition accounts for thirteen slots, twelve teams from six regions, plus a seeded slot: usually the previous year’s winner - in this case, Oxford. Assuming you clear the Asian Qualifier, there will be four additional locations. Europe is a given, likely the U.S as well, and two other locations. The fifth match will take place in China: it'll be your ‘home game’. Other than that, match-ups are the luck of the draw.”
“So, six matches?”
“Seven,” Walken corrected her speculation. “Two to qualify. Considering how soundly Fudan was thrashed, your biggest competitors are likely Japanese, meaning two matches abroad. After which, I’d expect five matches, four overseas, one defending your turf at home.”
“What determines the winner?”
“Match-points. In the 80s, finals involved group-duels. Those inevitably ended in bad-blood. The IIUC is a spectator sport: you have to remember. Having children kill each other makes for poor sponsorship, especially when favourites were ganged-up on and maimed. If you make it past Asia, maybe the CCP will finally broadcast the match, ha!”
Her Message bracelet chimed, displaying a previously unseen glyph.
“Sorry,” Gwen apologised, turning away. “Hello, who is this?”
“Greetings, may I ask if this Miss Gwen Song?” A female's voice enquired.
“Yes, this is she."
This woman better not offer me a better rate on my Message Device, Gwen grumbled internally. Or ramble on about a Nigerian Prince needing a crystal transfer.
“Oh, thank Mao! My name is Nurse Xie from Xiangming Municipal High School. It’s regarding your brother, Percy Song. He’s been injured in a duel and is currently on-route to the Second PLA Hospital. You were on his emergency contact list-”
“What?!” Gwen stood up so fast the chair shot out from under her like a Rock Shard. “HOW!”
The fucking hospital?! In a school with magical healing, her brother had to go to the fucking hospital?! Did babulya know? Did her grandfather? Somebody is going to get fucked something serious when Guo finds out!
“I’ve tried to contact Percy’s father, but the glyph is dead, do you know if…”
“Where is he now?” Gwen snapped. “Did you contact Secretary Song?”
“Secretary Song left us his department number so I’d thought I try you first," the nurse answered awkwardly. "The medical Mages left ten minutes ago, so-”
She slapped her forehead. Well, of course, a school nurse isn’t going to call the Chair of the bloody MSS to say that someone fucked up his grandson.
“Deep breath…” Walken appeared beside her. “Control your Essence.”
She inhaled and exhaled.
“Thank you; I'll go to the hospital now."
The Message glyph died.
“Can we reschedule?”
“Don’t lose your head.” The Magister studied her scarlet face, blushed from ear to ear. A vein throbbed just below her jaw, aristocratic and blue against her pale skin. “Think of this incident as training. People you love are going to get hurt, either by accident or by virtue of your talent and influence. That’s just how it is. What would happen if you lost your head each time?”
Gwen’s mouth moved to form a polite thank you, but her lips felt paralysed.
Abruptly, without a word, she was gone from the training hall, leaving Walken with a quarter of a sponge cake, still glistening with hundreds and thousands.