"Try adding a spin," Gwen instructed her companion.
Lulan grimaced with concentration, then let loose her projectile.
A slab of iron 'wooshed' through the air, spinning and swirling until it made a terrific 'CLANG!' against the Force Barrier.
"No, not like that- here." Gwen closed her eyes and concentrated, then materialised the thing she had in mind. "Minor Image!"
A jagged pie-chart materialised, mimicking a saw-blade.
"That's a whole other sort of magic." Richard tossed in his two-cents from the sideline. "I can do it with Lea's help, but I don't think it's possible for a Sword Mage. Lulu, watch Lea."
The petite form of Richard's Undine lifted a hand into the air, then made a sphere. Gradually, the orb began to spin until it flattened into a disk-shaped object.
"That's it!" Gwen clapped. "That's what I wanted."
"It's not a sword." Lulan studied the spinning 'disk' with evident frustration. "I can only do Swords."
"It's a sword spinning REALLY FAST." Gwen looked toward Richard for advice. "Clanner-magic's not that rigid, is it?"
"I think its best if we teach her with Western Spellcraft," Richard observed.
"Let's try this again," Gwen informed her companions. "Shield!"
A double-glazed semi-sphere Shield materialised.
"Give me your best attack! Add a SPIN!"
"Slash!" Lulan's face grew flush with effort as an enormous blade, almost the height of her whole body, descended onto Gwen's Shield after making several rotations.
The entire frontal quarter of Gwen's Shield turned white as the mana compressed. In the next moment, with great expedition, her barrier returned to its usual transparency.
"It's too hard!" Lulan growled.
"Nah, you are getting stronger," Richard assured his party member. "Gwen just has a little too much mana to spare, don't worry."
"Lulu, give me an 'Impale'." Gwen took a deep breath and readied a receiving stance. She manipulated her Minor Illusion to show a cone rotating on its centre-line. "Try adding a spin like so! Like a drill!"
Lulan wounded up a straight; her face grew red with concentration.
A slab of gleaming iron materialised, then accelerated forward suddenly, it corkscrewed a few times, then drifted slightly off-course.
The better half of Gwen's Shield turned opaque as she slid back about a meter. Had she not been ready for the immense impact, she would have been knocked over. Earlier, when they sparred, Lulan had kicked her through the air like a billiard ball, sending her bouncing all over the training hall.
"I think the spear-point is Lulu's best attack, to be honest," Richard remarked. If anything, he could parry the sweeps and slashes, but there was little his water could do to against a head-on collision.
Gwen meanwhile, struggled to recall what little physics she had learned. For Void magic, an element that did not exist in her world, she had no idea how to apply her scant recollection of Senior Physics. For Lightning, however, she had some idea of how her self-generated electricity could empower future technological phenomena, though that would have to wait for a time when she could avoid being burned at the stakes for witchcraft.
As for Lulan's giant roving slabs of iron girders, she was sure that there had to be a better way to utilise the girl's ability to summon construction material.
For a while now, they'd been thinking of a way to improve Lulan's Sword-spells. Lulan's basic skills had been honed to a razor edge, but, lacking support from Huashan, she wasn't getting any new tricks, as the saying goes.
If so, Gwen wanted her companion to develop something awe-inspiring, something that would blow the examiners, and ideally their competitors, away.
Considering the brutal-physics of Lulan's attacks, Gwen had racked her brain for something that could drastically improve the girl's offensive potential. At first, she had imagined Lulan's 'Slash!' and 'Impale!' as tree-lopping, lacking finesse but high on destructive-momentum. Then thinking of arboreal professionals, she recalled hiring a pruner to cut down a half-dead gumtree in her backyard. That particular memory had then elicited the notion of a chain-saw.
Naturally, Lulan couldn't summon a chainsaw.
But what about spinning saw-blades?
Just thinking about the scene gave her the shivers. What would a creature or a Mage think when a free-floating angle-grinder spinning at 2400 RPMs descended from above?
The chances of Lulan learning higher-tier magic like the vibrating blade the Elder had used was nil. If so, why not set Lulu on a new path of Spellcraft, one that combined Gwen's knowledge of physics and Lulu's penchant for armed metallurgy?
Take the saw for example - Gwen was sure her Shield, or any barrier for that matter, would be decimated by a spinning, 24-tooth saw.
Failing that, how about a rotating 'shell' of metal 'fired' from the Elemental Plane of Earth? Didn't Wikipedia say that the old smooth-bore rifles could only manage 40 odd meters, while the simple addition of a rifling groove made the same weapon shoot over 400 meters with unerring accuracy?
If so, Gwen hypothesised - could Lulan become a skirt-wearing 88mm tank gun? What if people mistook her as a Melee Mage - only to cop a 15-kilogram solid-slug projectile to the face?
She had learned enough from Spellshaping to know that such a thing was entirely possible - after all, basic Earthen Evocations like Catapult and Stone Lance followed the same principles, only their designers lacked the aerodynamic knowledge necessary for ballistics.
"Are we done?" Richard mopped the sweat from his body with a flick of his wrist. "Got fifteen minutes till the party."
"Yeppers." Gwen moved to change out of her exercise clothes. No one wanted to attend a tea party smelling like sweat. "Come on, Lulu, you change too."
Teacups, wine glasses and beer bottles clinked.
Since summer in Shanghai was intolerable, it was only between March to May that alfresco cafe sprouted like spring flowers across Gouding and University Road. Taking advantage of the temperate weather, Gwen had organised a final get-together at a floral Eden called 'Birds-sing and Flowers-fragrant' to catch up before the IIUC selection.
On the family front, Richard and Petra, Mina and Tao chatted across the long table beside Gwen’s usual companions, Lulan and Kusu, who occupied the middle. To her right, her workmates Dai and Ken accompanied the timid figures of Lily, Pu and Jon, who huddled on the far side, too tongue-tied to speak.
“I wonder where Mayuree’s gone,” Gwen declared to Petra and Lulan. “Kitty too, strange that they’re not here. No one's answering either.”
Petra affirmed that she hadn't seen Mayuree for at least a few days.
“Sorry, I am late!”
Gwen looked up, surprised to find that it was Marong who had come in the Diviner's place.
“Marong! A pleasure.” She extended a hand. “Here, take a seat! Where’s Mia?”
“She’s gone back to the home country for a while,” Marong explained. “Urgent family business. She’s asked me to come and see you in person to offer an apology.”
“No worries.” Gwen gave the man her best smile. “Please, don't stand on ceremony, we're all old friends here.”
Betraying her projected ease, Gwen felt strangely haunted by Mia's uninformed absence. It was queer that she didn’t leave her a Message. For so long, almost a year, Mia had been a constant companion by her side whether Gwen willed or no, and now her company, and Lei's meals, suddenly ceased.
"I think that's everyone." Gwen gestured for the NoM waiter. "Six Afternoon Delux sets."
"At once, Mistress."
Turning back to the table, Gwen re-introduced her cadre of friends, family and acquaintances to one another, thanking them for coming to her luncheon on such short notice. The whole ordeal had been spontaneous, she explained: she had fancied a proper afternoon tea after tasting Walken’s scones, then serendipitously, a group luncheon resulted.
“Stop, you're making me self-conscious.” Dai and Ken laughed when Gwen told everyone that they were the eldest of the bunch. Ken especially appeared awkwardly out of place with his suit and tie. “We’re old men compared to you folks, but we're young at heart.”
The table resounded with mirth.
The truth was that Lulan was the youngest of them all: she had turned seventeen in November, followed by Gwen, who would finally hit the big one-eight in May. Richard was already twenty and would finish his accelerated three-year degree at the ripe old age of twenty-two, the same as Kusu, who had joined Fudan a little later. Dai had his birthday in late February after a private party which Gwen had declined to attend, while the oldest was Ken, who confessed to being twenty-six.
“There’s another wunderkind here?” Ken indicated Lulan, sceptical that he could be ten years the girl’s senior. “I see why you booked a tea house.”
“Last time, Gwen took Lulu to a bar…” Kusu confronted Gwen accusingly. “Lulu came home raving like a lunatic, soaking from head to toe in sick.”
"A cute thing like you, Miss Li? That had to be a sight!"
Lulan pinched her brother.
“So, any plans for your eighteenth?” Dai took the opportunity to put forward a plan he’d been fermenting for some time. “Don’t tell me you’ve got nothing planned.”
“Well, depending on the Selection…”
“Nonsense!” Dai interjected. “Why would you of all people have any problems with the April round? What are they going to do? Hire the other dual-element Void sorceress Fudan has lying around?”
“I shouldn’t underestimate-”
“Nor should you overestimate their selection criterion,” the boisterous young man assured his teenage employer. “Father is vouching for you. Dean Lou is vouching for you. Your family, I assume, is vouching for you. I don’t even think you need to attend the interview, to be honest. There's going to be blood on the Dean's carpet if they reject you.”
Listening to Dai's audacious claim, Lily, Pu and Jon immediately re-calculated what they thought they knew about their long-time classmate: anyone else being so obnoxious would be vexatious - but this was the Princeling of the Fung Clan!
“I am more concerned about Lu,” Dai snorted. “You remember Lu? He's Wanli's owner. He aspired to join as well, but you’ve filled his niche and then some.”
“I am sorry to hear that,” Gwen offered her condolences. She then turned to Marong. “What about Kitty? Is she going to be a part of the trials?”
“I dare say she will,” Marong assured Kitty’s least favourite neighbour. “She’s in seclusion right now to wrap up her final training.”
“She is?” Gwen cocked her head. “I saw her just last week!”
“With Mia absent, she's gone with the wind.” Marong shot her a waning smile. “You know how she is.”
Which was true, Gwen had to admit. Kitty had no love for herself nor Marong. With Mayuree gone, nothing was keeping her at Gouding B1. With a week to go, going into seclusion for that final push may be just the thing.
Soon, servers arrived with tiers of delightful petit-fours, scones and jam, fresh fruits from the Wildlands, and daintily cut sandwiches in alternating flavours of cucumber and rabbit-terrine. After working her way through a double serving of pastries, Gwen turned her attention to her cousins.
“Tao, did you ever get your new single off the ground? Was my editing any help?”
“Aww yeah.” Tao gave her a cool nod of acknowledgement, making a 'W' with one hand. “Yo lyrical flow got my juices flowing, Gee. Dem sick beats kicking up ill rhymes, yo lambs be helpful, Gwennabitch.”
“Iambic meter,” Gwen corrected her cousin, wondering what the hell her Ioun Stone was doing to translate Tao so well. Tao was under the impression that her analogy had been about lambs bleating in two-beat syllables.
“Shaaa!” A cry emanated from under the table.
“Woa! Cali-bitch, you back fo mo?”
“Peaches, language…” Mina groaned. Why did Tao persist in making every gathering a place for social suicide?
Her family was used to Tao's befouled linguistic antics, but Gwen's other friends couldn't help but stare. 'Cali-bitch?' 'Gwennabitch?' what were these words coming out of the man's mouth?
“I got Ariel covered!” Lily declared from her end of the table. Gwen's Conjuration crew of Fudan's 'normies' had taken up with Ariel to absolve the need for awkward conversation with the strange and haughty folks sitting opposite.
“Sorry Lil, thanks for looking after Ariel.” Gwen flashed an appreciative grin. With her hands, she drew the audience' attention. “Lulu, you recall Lil. Right? You guys met last time we had dinner, about a month ago.”
“Greetings.” Lulan nodded, though it was clear her memory was fuzzy. "I do remember you."
“Hello,” Lily inclined her head. She vaguely recalled Lulan. "I think we met."
The two girls stared at one another.
“My father was recently promoted to the Chief Superintendent of Jiading,” Lily stated, switching to a universal ice-break the Guan-er-dai used to pass the time - speaking to each other by talking about their families. "How're things at Huashan?"
“My Shifu is dead, and I am excommunicated. Were it not for Gwen, I would be homeless,” Lulan explained carefully.
"... right. How about you, Tao?” Lily shifted her conversation to the other side, hoping their parents were alive, hale and well-connected.
“Mah old man? He’s Bao Wang, the biggest dawg in town. My fam owns Wang Group Enterprises, ho.”
“Peaches!” Mina scolded her brother. “What did father say about bragging? Sorry, Lily, Peaches is a fruit.”
“This bitch was the one who asked! Ow! Why are you slapping me, fool?”
“…” Lily sipped her tea. Was anyone here a 'normal' person? She was beginning to be very thankful of Pu's advice that they should NOT look Gwen up for Questing and adventuring.
“So, what courses are you guys doing?” Kusu suddenly cut in. The whole ordeal was much too painful to watch.
“Wow, that’s great; I am doing a mix of first and second-year courses right now..”
“Cool, who’s your Lecturer?”
"Birch, Lee, Griggs, and Wu, you?"
“Which university are you attending Mina?”
“I am studying at a vocational Hospital.”
“Wow, you’re from the Wang family, and you’re still working?”
“Dad says we all need a trade, so…”
“That’s an admirable attitude!”
Good work, Kusu. Gwen applauded Lulan’s brother. The young man was level-headed and for a Clanner, possessed an admirable temperament. Once they were out of university, she was sure that there would be a place for Kusu in her organisation. Lulan might be the superior Mage by far, but Kusu was talented in other ways Lulan couldn’t begin to match. In her eyes, the man had the making of a Majordomo.
With the further side of the table finally talking, Gwen returned to Dai.
“You never gave me an answer,” Dai implored. “Well?”
“Are you going to organise one for me?” Gwen could read Dai’s face like a book.
“Well, you’re my boss, and my...” Dai coughed, suddenly sensing a chill.
The rest of the table perked up.
Mina's expression darkened.
Giving her cousin the A-okay, Gwen turned to Dai with a bone-tingling smirk.
“Don’t worry, sweet prince." Her luscious lips kissed the air. “We’ll be friends and colleagues, always.”
The others collectively winced.
Having delivered the Friend-Zone kiss of death, Gwen relented.
“A party sounds like a good idea.” She patted Dai on the shoulder before turning to Marong. “Is Mayuree going to be back in May? That's May 25th.”
“I sure hope so, if nothing goes awry.” The Diviner’s brother chuckled along with the rest. “You’re welcome to use one of our establishments if you like.”
“Or one of our hotels!” Tao counter-offered. “Father will clear the whole grand ballroom of Park Hyatt on the Bund if it’s for you.”
“No problems there,” Mina confirmed. “I’ll speak to dad. How big are you thinking? Two hundred guests?”
“I was thinking of something a little less public…” Gwen baulked. Two hundred? Was she going to invite her whole university cohort? “Just family and friends, you know?”
“Not possible!” Dai bolted upright, brimming with anticipation. “It’s your eighteenth! You’re one of the instrumental members of the Nantong Tonglv Committee! A teenage prodigy and soon to be selected for the IIUC! You’ve never come out, right? No one in our high-society circles has seen you in the flesh! That has to change!”
“Dai’s right,” Richard remarked expertly. “A society-gathering is a great opportunity to gain some ‘Guan-xi’. Perhaps you can do a demonstration to spread the news of your prowess to our future competitors. They have their IIUC selection right about now as well. Remember what Walken said.”
Ergh - Gwen's head swelled to twice its usual size. She caught Petra looking and realised her cousin was right yet again.
Why did she always make herself suffer?
"Don't hurt yourself." Magister Lee loomed over Gwen and her Death Worm. "Though I am happy you are making progress, that was a close call."
Week 9's workshop took place in the lower campus, in a place unceremoniously called 'Spellcraft laboratory No. 5', an open-plan arrangement spanning the space of several classrooms, divided via single-pane Force Barriers. Due to its limited capacity to house individual students, the Spellshaping cohort had split into morning, afternoon and evening sessions, with twenty-odd students attending each of Michio Lee's lessons.
Just now, Gwen's Void-spell misfired, sending a splutter of Void-matter into the range.
"I am still trying to stabilise the spell." Gwen pointed to a white-board filled with arcane Glyphs and incantations. "Though Void is unstable by nature."
The spell she was trying to create was an original Invocation of her own making. Though Walken had given her innumerable advice, her 1001 puzzle assortment of Major and Minor Incantations was proving to be a significant cerebral challenge.
"Start from the beginning." Magister Lee conjured a saddle-chair. With his broad chest and well-muscled arms, the man cut a dashing figure anywhere, even on a faux-saddle. "Explain your rationale."
Gwen cleared her throat.
"As you would know, Sir, the quality of Void as an offensive element lies in its ability to 'disappear' materials. Motes expend themselves to 'absorb' anything it touches. In work carried out with Magister Wen, we rationalised this as the Void 'consuming' matter by diminishing itself to send its target into the Quasi-Elemental Plane of the Void itself."
"My current staple is Void Bolt, or black-lightning; a spell which conjures a mass of Void Matter to strike my enemies. More accurately, it should be called an unguided Void-missile which emerges from translocation point A, projected toward a predetermined direction. Compared to Lightning Bolt, it has significant travel time and can be dodged."
"Considering the limitation of expending Vitality, I wanted to create a spell that possessed the lethality of the Bolt but at a far lower cost - one that maximised the characteristics of Void."
"Very good - go on."
"In essence, I wanted to materialise a projectile form that is energy-efficient while generating maximum tactility."
"Proceed carefully this time."
"I can show you the tier 2 variation, Sir. Right now, I can't manage Homing or propulsion."
Gwen focused her mind.
The air hummed.
Had Lee been standing at eye-level, he would have missed the paper-thin ring that materialised half-a-meter in front of them. From an elevated angle, however, it was as though an 'O' shaped hole had formed in time-space, with the light at the ring's centre becoming distorted and warped.
"A combination of Evocation and Conjuration!" Lee observed. "Marvellous."
"It's the most efficient form-factor, Sir," Gwen explained. "The ring is spinning too, though you can't see it. That was as far as I managed. Next is propulsion, and ideally a homing function."
"Does it cut well?"
Gwen scrunched up a piece of paper and threw it at the ring. Soundlessly, the paper-ball fell into two sections. The smaller portion, trapped in the ring's midst was then reduced to powdery snow.
"Would you consider 'Chakrum!' anti-personnel or anti-creature?"
"Creature, Sir. 'Charkrum' is one-tenth the expenditure of a Void Bolt, at least so far. Once we factor in distance and other capabilities, I anticipate one-quarter."
"Excellent, well done!" Lee slapped her shoulder. "My recommendation would be a channel function to decrease or increase the diameter of the ring. Likewise, you could test if adding or decreasing revolutions impact efficacy of the spell. In the future, I would venture to say that what you may consider an alteration to Blade Barrier that could make the spell a Void Element staple! Likewise, imagine if you can create an offensive Shield that's a perimeter disk of Void-Matter, and co-currently activate it with a neutral Mana Shield, it would make a most excellent melee counter! A disk with a hollow core! Who'd have thought?"
Gwen wasn't about to tell the Magister that she came up with the idea after working with Lulan and thinking of Xena, Warrior Princess.
"After our examination in week 13, go to Fudan T2 at once and have your spell registered," Lee reminded her. "You haven't disappointed me, Gwen. High five?"
Observed by a dozen others, Gwen coyly gave her handsome Instructor a high and a low. Her draconic-strength however, ensured that both were thunderclaps, drawing ire from the girls as only she could.
"Wow, she certainly did leave in a hurry." Gwen glanced over the penthouse apartment where Mayuree's things remained here and there.
"She'll be back soon enough," Marong smoked on the lounge. Without his sister, he could puff as he pleased. "Too bad she took Lei with her."
"I miss Lei already." Gwen sighed. "So, you're living here alone?"
"I'll be gone next week." Marong gave her a strange smile. "You've been orphaned, Miss Song."
Gwen laughed until she caught the man's mirthless mien.
"Gwen." Marong exhaled, tipping his fag. "Can I ask you a serious question?"
"How do you feel about Mia?" Much to her dismay, Marong's expression grew strange and severe enough for Gwen to take a seat.
"Not... romantically, if that's what you mean," Gwen replied apprehensively. "I mean, girl-friends do slumber parties, and Mia does have a super-king bed, so..."
"How close are you guys, as... what's the word? Mates?"
Gwen smiled at the sound of Marong's attempted slang.
"Mia's a sister, I suppose. She's small and petite and cute and innocent, kind of reminds of another little sister I have. God, I miss her. Hell, I miss Mia already, and it's only been a week."
"A sister? Are you serious?"
"Do I look serious?" Gwen raised a brow.
"I suppose you do." Marong paused. "Thanks."
"Why, you feeling a little protective?" Gwen laughed. "I thought you loved bullying her. You're the big bad brother, right?"
"Hardly - did you know we're not direct-siblings?"
Gwen blinked. What did that mean?
"In the olden days, in the old country, before even the Great War in Europe, there was a King by the name of Thibaw Min, son of Mindon and the Priestess Mibaya, of the Royal Kingdom of Myăma. The King was a cruel and wicked man. Fearing succession from his young siblings, he slaughtered all of his half-brothers during his coronation, keeping alive only his half-sisters, whom he would wed to loyal ministers, or give as gifts to the aristocracy."
Marong's captive audience blinked, wondering why the Smoke Mage was waxing history midway through a conversation about Mayuree.
"The Britannic Mageocracy had little patience for indulging a small South East Asian nation's civil war, however, and it wasn't long before Thibaw Min capitulated, becoming a Protectorate of the Mageoracy and renamed Burma."
"Thibaw knew then that he had made a terrible mistake killing the most talented of his family members, whose talents were now lost to him. After the British introduced the Imperial Magical System, he expended a thousand year's collated wealth on hundreds of concubines, fathering countless children with talented abilities so that when the time came for the Kingdom to rise again, they would not be bereft of talent."
"So you and Mayuree are half-siblings?" Gwen inquired.
"Thibaw Min has been dead for half a century." Marong chuckled. "Mia and I are cousins, but our blood is a little more intimate."
"Indeed." Marong nodded. "It's a complicated matter, but to summarise, we descend from a pair of half-sister Priestesses from the King's harem, who themselves were related to the old King."
"Is that so surprising?"
"I suppose not..." Gwen forced her brows to lower. A person needs to be culturally sensitive. "So, is Mia a princess?"
"Without name, title, or country?" Marong scoffed. "Not to mention we are half-bloods, carrying maybe a quarter of Min's stock at best. No, Mia and I are not royalty, though there are those of us who are directly descended. We are... spares."
"Oh, er... Sorry." Gwen lowered her eyes, wondering if she had stepped on one of Marong's funny bones. Heir and spares, eh? That seemed to be the way any royalty functioned, look at Will and Harry. "Look, I don't care about that. Mia's an important friend and a sister; that's all that matters."
Marong did not dignify her with a response. It was as though all the words in the world had dried up.
After an awkward 'goodnight', Gwen left for her apartment.
Marong reached into his suit-pocket and extracted the recording crystal of a Vid-cast recorder. He dialled a Glyph into his Message Device.
"I have a testimonial I'd like to send to the Matriarch. Can you arrange it for delivery to Yangon?"
"At once, Young Master."
Marong closed his eyes and tried to picture the girl who had just left. She was so young, so fresh, and so inundated with the Tyrant's scent. Had he made the right choice or had he doomed himself and Mayuree? But that was a moot point now. Without his sister, his life would be Mu - nothing. And for Mayuree, something infinitely worse.