From her make-shift den, the Worm Handler of Fudan emerged. Though paler for the effort, her indoor incarceration throughout the smothering summer was overall for the better, touching on many of her milestones.
First and foremost, 'Link Sight', A.K.A Ariel Vision, was now complete. When activated, she could see the world from Ariel's eyes so long as she kept up her concentration, albeit staying stationary was necessary should she wish to avoid sensory nausea.
Curiously, while wearing Caliban V.R, what she saw was a greyscale world where the only vibrancy came from people and things that showed signs of life. The more vitality a creature or person possessed, the more vivid their ‘presence’ appeared to Caliban’s ‘senses’.
“How curious.” Walken was surprised as well. “Many creatures can hide their visual presence or their mana signature, but few can hide their life force. What's the range?”
Unfortunately, even at a dozen meters, Caliban-sight gave her a terrific headache. Perhaps, Gwen thought, if Caliban could acquire a form factor with a powerful sense ability, her Familiar could improve its 'Foodar'.
Her second milestone was the improvement of her Void Chakram, which conceptually, took the form of an Aerobie Drone.
After several revisions, her superior control over Conjuration took precedence over Evocation, creating a hovering ring that could be commanded to ‘seek’ a target up to two hundred odd meters away. One disadvantage was her low-tier 'seeker' invocation, inferring that when a creature left her line-of-sight, the ring returned to a linear trajectory.
When all was said and done, she published the spell into the Spell directory as an addendum to her original.
Casting Time: 50 Major, 31 Minor Incantation
Range: Far, LoS
Components: Somatic, Verbal
This spell creates a projectile ring of Void-matter which rotates to form a flat disk with a deadly cutting edge; this entry is for the seeker variation with termination on target loss.
Her next objective was to create multiple 'rings' as to possess both a Void and a Lightning variation of her staple offensive magic - Ball Lightning. When used in conjunction, electricity would stun the target while her Void Aerobies slice and dice, or inversely, her Void spell could chip away scale or hide, opening the target to electrical permeation.
And finally, Lulan submitted her Panzerschreck.
Casting Time: 58 Major, 23 Minor Incantation
Components: Somatic, Verbal
This original spell is designed with the Huashan Iron Heart Technique as a prerequisite, though sufficiently skilled Conjurers utilising solid Elements may forgo this process. Panzerschreck, also known as Armour Scare, is a Signature Magic created through repurposing Huashan Sword School's ‘Piercing-Heart’ technique. Upon manifestation, this hybrid spell launches a projectile of penetrative solid metal. The shape of the missile (See appendix 1.1 and 1.2) allows for extended displacement.
As a part of their deal, for Huashan's facsimile, Gwen had omitted the appendices which included footnotes for a rotating, four-finned projectile. When finally Lulan test-fired the finned-rods into the distance, Gwen couldn't help but realise that she had subconsciously reproduced an old world junior-science staple - Match-rockets!
Lulan was blasting off bloody match-rockets! The DIY aluminium rocketry had been the bane of 90s parents whose apartments lacked internet and whose kids couldn't be nannied by smartphones! Thanks to her chain-smoking father, there had been an endless supply of Red Heads in the house, meaning many a boring summer, Gwen had launched a fusillade onto a neighbour’s roof. The neighbour had then berated Morye when one of these smouldering projectiles lodged in the mesh screen, melting the cheap plastic.
Unfortunately, aiming the Piercing Heart Sword remained an art form. Though Gwen had a vague idea of the mathematics involved, it would take more than herself for Lulan to gain the accuracy afforded by computerised artillery trajectories. For now, the inconsistency of Lulan’s firing angle, the weight of her conjured ammunition, and the configuration of her ‘swords’ all impeded repeatable performance metrics. For the near future, they would have to CC up a ballistics mathematician or buff Lulu's aim with “True Strike”, a spell exclusive to Diviners trained in manipulating the threads of probability.
In bearing witness to a dozen near-hits, Walken expressed his scepticism of the spell's usefulness. Gwen conversely, assured Lulan that should their magic attain perfection, it would revolutionise low-tier, long-ranged assault spells. Though Lulan was effectively attacking with strangely-shaped swords in the eyes of the others, Gwen knew that if and when they could aim the damn thing, accuracy exceeding several kilometres should be entirely possible, expelling the common perception that only strategic spells had distances exceeding line-of-sight.
If she could furthermore secure non-magical staff capable of such calculations, their institutionalised knowledge could be used again and again. Gwen was confident that when the time came, the single-most terrifying reality of the Great War, that strange arithmetic of chance, would befall any enemy foolish enough to siege her city.
But as for her immediate endeavour, it was the teamwork meet-n-greet that occupied her afternoon.
Gwen found her future companions sitting in a conspicuously large rectangle consisting of sixteen candidates.
Most notably, Lu Fung was missing.
The Dean cleared his throat.
“As you have noticed, some of your nominated peers have chosen to drop out from the second stage,” the Dean explained. “I will not speak of why they have retracted their applications, though I will reiterate that by today’s end, six of you shall be stricken from the roll.”
A collective shuffling spread through the crowd.
“Good. Now introduce yourselves. Gwen, you start.”
At the mention of her name, the others turned to regard the infamous Worm Handler of Fudan, as seen on TV.
Gwen stood then courteously bowed from the waist.
“Hello, my name is Gwen Song, a Void and Lightning user. I am well versed in Conjuration and Evocation, and my Familiars are Ariel and Caliban. I aspire to be a member of the Offence or Control team. It’s a pleasure to meet you all.”
Concise and without a hint of ego. The Dean nodded approvingly. For all her blunders outside of the university, Gwen had a knack the others lacked.
Lulan next bowed her head.
“Lulan Li, Sword Mage. I am an Earthen user and a CQB Combat Mage.”
“Richard Huang. Defence or Control. Team Gwen. Conjurer with Abjuration as my secondary School of Magic. I possess a high-tier Water Spirit.”
“Hello, I am Lea,” Richard’s Undine, resplendent, semi-transparent and sensuous, hovered above her Master. That Richard's spirit matched Dean Luo’s Ellen was enough to set the others on edge, so much that the ‘Team Gwen’ which preceded his boast fell on deaf ears.
“Anita Wong.” A girl with the same irises as Petra raised her hand. “Mobile Defender. I can retrieve or restore mana by having my Spirit consume transmuted stone. My Mineral is Calcite: it looks like this. I will be providing you with armour-buffs and makeshift defensive formations."
Without an incantation, Anita transmuted a clump of turf, producing a small knee-high barrier of jagged, hex-pyramidal crystals.
“Bai Tei.” Senior Bai stood and bowed. “Defensive position. Dust Abjurer. I am on my third selection and my second IIUC. I will be in your care.” A third-year, Bai was widely known throughout the university and needed no introduction. In all likelihood, with his seniority, Bai would take on the position of Team Captain.
“Karie Mok. I am a two-timer as well, along with that gravedigger over there,” the headliner Diviner of the team announced. The girl had a catty mien that reminded Gwen of a typical ‘Young Miss’. Her slightly upturned eyes gave her a feline expression both haughty and aggressive. “I am your only Diviner, so when the time comes, listen to what I say, else ignore me at your peril.”
The rest of the team stiffened.
“I am… E-Eunae Lee,” a quiet voice spoke from somewhere.
Eunae?! Gwen arched her neck to see, noting that it was indeed the South Korean bestiary exchange-student who had presented herself. Extending a hand, she waved at Eunae.
Eunae waved back with comparably less enthusiasm. The last time they parted, Caliban had scared her shitless.
“I am… a Positive Magic user. And I have a Familiar Spirit called Luyi…”
Many a furrowed brow met Eunae's proclamation.
Curiously, Gwen didn’t recall Eunae being short-listed in April.
“Eunae is a Utility caster,” the Dean explained. “She is skilled at dispelling curses, hexes, and mind-afflicting enchantments. Likewise, her Familiar engenders a group-wide Area of Effect Rejuvenating effect that detoxifies and wards against poisons. Isn't that right, Miss Lee?”
Eunae nodded fiercely.
The Dean had a point, though most teams would prefer a dispeller-Enchanter who could also buff. For day-long Quests, it was entirely possible to glamour the questing party for up to 24 hours without the need to include said Enchanter in the away team.
Comparably, Eunae's active inclusion would detract from the team's power level. Had Walken been present, he would have reminded the others that teams from Europe may field Witches, whose infamous hex-spells offered buffs and debuffs in equal measure, all the while retaining a respectable tier of individual firepower.
“Yessir, I have received permission to participate from Ewha U."
“Wait, she’s Korean?” Karie stated the obvious. “We’re going to be competing against Seoul U, aren’t we?”
“Half-Korean,” the Dean reminded their Diviner. “Just as Jiro is half-Japanese. The IIUC is not a nationalist conflict, Miss Mok. It’s a skill-exchange between academic associations and Fudan, unlike Tsinghua or Jiantong, remains committed to being an international university!”
Karie Mok shrugged.
Gwen could sense the tension even from the front of the row.
“Rene Mui,” spoke the next girl, one Gwen had presumed was South-East Asian until she announced her name. “I hail from the Thundering Peninsula south of Guangdong. I am a Magma Mage studying under Instructor Hufei Chen. My preferred position is Offence.”
“Jiro Peng,” the half-Japanese member declared himself. “Fire Evoker, tier 6. Just in case anyone’s wondering, no, I have never been to Japan. I was born and raised right here in Shanghai; my grandmother was a refugee from Okinawa. I have contracted an Undying Firebird named Tanyu.”
Impressive! Gwen wanted to clap. She knew of Jiro’s Firebird from Walken, who had said that the young man's flames were near-impossible to douse without first incapacitating Jiro.
“Kitty Liang…” Gwen had been staring at Kitty since they arrived, making the girl uncomfortable in more ways than one. Her voice was quieter in public, a complete one-eighty when compared to the girl who screamed at Gwen to fuck off. “Ice and Air. Control or Offence. I have a Roc Spirit, a juvenile. My speciality is aerial combat.”
“Tai Sun, Earthen Mage, Abjurer. I am from the Taishang Sect, a Defender like Senior Bai,” another contestant intoned dejectedly, realising that the stationary defence position was likely going to be Bai’s alone.
“Gigi Yang, Ermei Sword Mage.” A young woman with flowing, waist length hair glanced at Lulan and Gwen. “I am a Mineral user as well. My speciality is CQB, like Miss Li. I am aiming for an Offence slot.”
“Chen Chan, Mud Mage.” A stout young man yawned. “Control. Jiangsu.”
“Jinwei Li, Sword Mage.” Jinwei, Lulan’s cousin, said nothing else.
“Miriam Yen, Salt Mage. I hail from the Qingdao Five River Sect.” A muscular young woman with an impressive physique struck out her chest. “Defence, offence, I don’t care. Our Clan’s Magic is very versatile.”
“Tsai Fu, Earthen Conjurer-Enchanter. I can make terracotta-golems,” their final member intoned miserably, realising that when Dean Luo had advised that he rethink the application, he was trying to spare him the embarrassment.
Eight Clanners, excluding Lulan, Gwen noted. Almost half their number.
That in itself was enough to indicate the unbalanced influence exercised by the Clans. She wondered if the Dean already had a short-list of ten in mind, balanced between independents and Clanners. Presuming herself, Richard and Lulan counted as independents, that left room for the Diviner, possibly Eunae, then finally five or six Mages from Sects.
‘CLAP! CLAP! CLAP!’
The Dean's meaty palms met in prayer.
“Good, now that you’re all acquainted. Let’s proceed with the teamwork examination. Conjure Objects!”
Upon the open lawn of the campus oval, a mass of strange and twisted components, some metal, some rubber, some large and small, mundane and magical, littered the immaculately mown turf.
It was an awe-inspiring display of control and mental fortitude.
“Those are the dismantled parts of 'four' planar purifiers,” the Dean began. “The scenario, based on a prior IUCC Quest, is that you and the other teams from three universities are fighting for machine parts to save the NoMs living in your Frontier Districts. As this is a trial to gauge how well you mesh with others, we will not be taking your Magical Ability into account. As such, sans sorcery and in teams of four; each group will occupy a quadrant of the field! Your quadrant and everything on it will belong to your team.”
Immediately, the IIUC contestants scanned the field.
Feeling an intense déjà vu, Gwen spontaneously searched their surroundings for quintessential components. Blessed with fortified vision, she quickly spotted a bundle of nondescript paper in the furthest quadrant almost two hundred meters away. Though the writing couldn't be seen, she could ascertain with confidence that she had spotted the assembly manuals.
“Richard, Lulan, to me!” She took the initiative before the others could act and the Dean could continue.
Eunae sidled toward Gwen pleadingly, though Gwen was glancing at Kitty, or barring that, Karie.
Without a word, Jinwei walked behind the trio.
“…” Gwen exchanged a look with the zealous Clanner. Mate, you’re too keen, her eyes chided the young man; if he had joined an opposing camp, he could have served as a mole.
Taking Gwen’s cue, the others shuffled into their respective assemblies.
Group 1 consisted of herself, Lulan, Richard and Jinwei.
Group 2 consisted of Rene, Jiro, Eunae and Karie
Group 3 consisted of Bai, Chen, Gigi and Tai.
Group 4 consisted of Miriam, Kitty, Anita and Tsai.
“I am happy to see that you are all very keen.” The Dean grinned. “As stated, this a contest to see how well you work together, not just as a group of four, but as a whole, to reconstruct these purification filters as quickly as possible and within the time limit. The group to reconstruct the LAST filter will face harsh penalties when we consider who to exclude. Likewise, the members who assemble the filter FIRST will receive priority.”
“Also, in considering your actions, scores given will be used to calculate seniority within your IIUC party. Students with the highest team-work rating will receive the title of Captain and Vice Captain, while those of you with the lowest, up to the 10th member, will be subordinate. Once established, your leader's decisions are absolute. During the competition, should you exercise insubordination, you will be punished accordingly. For the six members soon to be disqualified, you may be called upon for the competition if there are casualties among the core members, or if a replacement is deemed necessary.”
The Dean gave them all a smirk of encouraging confidence.
“Now, who will choose first?”
Gwen's hand shot up, but to the surprise of all, she turned to face Karie’s group.
“Karie, you’re our only Diviner, so I want to give you the first pick.”
In response, the Diviner gave the Worm Handler a head-to-toe, trying to ascertain her ploy.
“Why don’t you pick first?” the Diviner offered. “I can’t use my talent, after all, talk about stupid.”
Gwen extended a hand to the other two groups.
“Kitty? Senior Bai?”
Kitty and Co. appeared indecisive.
“Ladies first.” Senior Bai folded his arms. As one of the people who were sure to be selected, he was more interested in Gwen's game.
“Very well.” Gwen breathed out. She pointed to the east quadrant, which had the least amount of parts. “We’ll take that one.”
“Miss, I do believe the west quadrant has two Cores,” Jinwei spoke just loud enough for her to hear.
“Trust me on this.”
“Gwen must know something.” Lulan stopped her cousin, who looked unconvinced.
Very soon, the others picked their quadrants.
“Your time starts now," the Dean announced before sauntering away to the bleachers, simultaneously informing the Proctors to activate the surveillance mandala.
A gentle thrum hummed over the field for a split-second.
“Alright everyone, with me,” Gwen told the group to follow. “Over yonder, hop to it.”
“Shouldn’t we be taking inventory?” Richard glanced at the others, wondering what it took to steal from the others. With Lea, he should be able to pull it off. From the look of their quadrant, they didn’t have a Core.
“No need; just come.”
The group followed.
At the furthest edge, watched by dozens of curious passersby, Gwen retrieved a stack of paper weighed under a glass panel.
“The instruction manual.” Gwen waved it in the air for all to see.
“How did you know?!” Lulan exhaled a sigh of relief, glad that Gwen indeed knew what she was doing.
With a deft splay of both her hand, Gwen fanned out four copies of the manual.
“How curious,” Richard observed. “I think I am starting to understand how the game is played. Shall we thrift for a Core first? Senior Bai's quadrant has two; maybe get them to give up multiple surplus parts. Between the two teams, I am sure we can corner at least one other team. How about we start with Kitty?”
“That's beside the point,” Gwen urged her peers to huddle. “Listen up.”
She held the instruction just out of sight.
“This isn’t a game for us to win,” she explained. “This is a game to determine who leads and who leaves.”
“Ergh…” Lulan swallowed nervously. Of the three, she was the least likely to be picked, though she had a lifeline in the form of Jinwei.
“So forget about coming first,” their companion intoned seriously. “Instead, we’re going to do everything we can to facilitate everyone else's' success.”
Her team regarded her strangely, even for Gwen, this was too much of a mental pitfall.
"I am not sure if you noticed." She struck a thumb out at the Dean, her mind working furiously to construe a passable analogy. "But the old man never said anything about winning or losing..."
In the mid-00s, during her university days, Gwen had edged past several thousand contestants to participate in the HSBC Young Businesswoman’s program in Hong Kong. After a week of mind-numbing seminars and corporate speakers, the bank's organisers had taken the young women out to a countryside retreat. Within the 7-day conference, they networked through copious amounts of hiking tours, cooking classes, self-defence and nature tours - all based around the Ocean Park Marriott Resort.
On the fourth day, the organisers had told the girls, a splintered gathering of twenty out of a hundred women from international universities, to file into a gym where a disturbing splay of bike parts dotted multiple quadrants.
Then, drawing lots, the girls split into four teams.
The goal, explained the organiser, was for the girls to work together to assemble the bikes.
The winning team received a 1000 USD spa voucher for the Park Regent’s upper floor sauna, enough for all five team members to receive the full treatment.
Number two received buffet vouchers for the seafood feast, valued at 250 USD.
Number three and four received a pat on the back.
Not so gifted at bike-assembly, but gung-ho for spa treatments, the girls were all fired up. Gwen, of course, had assumed natural command of her bartering team and had just managed to hog about half the number of wheels when the organiser brought in a local boy looking decidedly miserable compared to the sea of pastel blouses.
“Mr Ning says that there’s going to be bikes donated to our orphanage," the boy informed the company of sweaty young women busy at work with spanners.
SHIT! Gwen spewed when she realised the whole point of the exercise was applied ethics. The didactic trial was for the promotion of teamwork in a manner that moved individuals away from a mentality of individual gain toward synergy value, prioritising the welfare of the children who were waiting for their bikes: especially bikes not missing parts because someone was desperate for a spa ticket.
In hindsight, it was a rather blatant attempt at force-feeding ambitious young women a ladle of chicken soup for the soul.
Not to mention the orphan HSBC had picked out was cute as a button, instantly slaying half the young women in the room.
Afterwards, the assemblage had all gone to the orphanage and donated individually to the organisation, which was then matched dollar for dollar by HSBC. A little photo-op was had, and the kids, the businesswomen and their bikes all made it into the local paper, as well as on HSBC's social media. Gwen and a few of the comelier girls also made the cover of HSBC's in-house magazine.
Principally, the takeaway was as follows:
The contestants gained a spa Groupon and feel-good memories.
The kids received donations and half-a-dozen K-Mart bikes.
HSBC gained good-will and good optics.
Win - Win - Win.
That's how the game was played.
“And that’s how it is,” Gwen informed the others.
Lulan and Jinwei looked at Gwen as though she was the strategist Zhuge Kongming reborn.
Richard gave their opponents across the oval a cursory glance.
“Okay, we’ll play it your way,” he apprised his over-imaginative cousin.
In Gwen's words, the whole thing was a mind-fuckery experiment to see if people are willing to work together or if they’re keen to succeed selfishly at the cost of the overall objective. As with any corporate group activity, the test was to see how people react when situational duress met underlying personality. Usually, unless an employee demonstrated destructive, spectacular failure, there was no right or wrong thing to do. Presumably, the Dean was interested in seeing which of the students possessed leadership and follower-ship, and who had the tendency of being an asshole.
Teamwork and cohesion, Dean Luo had reiterated, were equal to Spellcraft, as arguably, all the teams possessed relatively similar tiers of Magic.
Which, according to Bai, was minotaur shit. Progenitor colleges like Oxford and Cambridge undeniably possessed an unbridgeable advantage in terms of Spellcraft knowledge. Analogically, Gwen supposed, it was like competing against European countries in the Winter Olympics as a Jamaican Bobsled team. If Fudan couldn’t get its teamwork together, it may as well save itself the shame.
“Great, help me arrange everything first, take the parts that we have, and lay it out on the diagram,” Gwen entreated her companions before approaching the corner boundary where all four teams bisected.
“Ladies, gents, a moment of your time?” Her Illusion-powered holler echoed across the oval.
The splintered parties gathered, leaving all but two individuals to wander.
Kitty’s aloofness came as no surprise, though the fact that Karie, their Diviner, also stood apart was a sign of troubles to come. Did the woman think her position was unassailable? Gwen frowned. If she recalled correctly from her notes, the Mok family was a well-to-do merchant House like the Wangs. What had the woman hoped to gain by putting on airs?
“I have the blueprints and the assembly instruction.” Gwen waved the paper back and forth. “Let’s facilitate a trade agreement to make this hassle-free. I am going to give everyone the first page with the parts and numbers list. Lay out your quadrant's components like what Richard and Lulan are doing, place surplus parts onto the left margin and your core-components in the middle. After that, we'll do the old' swap meet!”
With a mote of Void, she cleanly sliced the booklets' bindings, then portioned out the first two pages, a double-spread diagram.
The others regarded one another. Was the scheming Void Sorceress trying to trade them the manual page by page? What deviousness!
“Senior Bai,” Gwen implored sweetly. “Do you trust me?”
“I do.” Bai nodded, not understanding her game but comprehending her goal. “Chen, Gigi, Tai. Do as she says.”
“Yessir.” The others obliged. There was no point refuting Senior Bai, who was the most experienced individual, and whose Clan was famed for its precepts of righteousness and piety.
“Alright, let’s see where this is going.” Lacking a clear leader and feeling jilted by their Diviner; Rene, Jiro and Eunae went about picking parts to bring to the borderline. Watching the diminutive Eunae rolling a length of pipe was entirely endearing, Gwen chuckled. Why was it that healers were all so cute?
In the final quadrant, Tsai and Miriam were commanded by Anita to do the same, joined momentarily by Kitty, who gave Gwen a dirty look.
“Karie,” Gwen called out to the Diviner. “Teamwork!”
The disdainful girl shot her a wilting look of disapproval.
Maybe she’s on the rag, Gwen accounted for the Diviner’s hostility, she couldn't imagine why Karie Mok was so hostile.
It took about ten minutes for the groups to arrange their pieces.
“Would anyone like to start?” Gwen raised her extra three copies of the instruction manual.
“Sure: I'll give you a core, a left-ventricle tubing, and the transformer actuator for all three copies of the manual,” Senior Bai offered with a glint in his eye.
“Ha! No can do. One-copy per team,” Bai's counterpart snickered. “Richard, what else we got?”
Richard read out a list of surplus parts which he had deduced after Gwen's counter-intuitive purpose.
“Cheers, Dick. Senior Bai, we'll trade you a right-ventricle seal, an exhaust gasket and a filtration panel.” Richard pointed to the parts, demonstrating a sharp eye for puzzles.
“But…” Bai gazed at Gwen’s quadrant, then back again, confused by the offer. From what he could see, Gwen was trading out parts she required herself.
“Lulu.” Richard passed a second list over to Lulan. “Go and trade for these with group 3. Jinwei, go trade for these with group 4. Bring back the parts and put them all into the surplus pile.”
“Senior Bai.” Gwen smirked at the perplexed Clanner, her eyes forming two smiling half-moons. “You said you would trust me.”
“Because we’re on the same team?”
“Yep," the girl elegantly inclined her head. "Isn't that what teamwork is all about?"
Dean Luo realised the jig was up as soon as Gwen’s group traded away their share of essential components.
A wave of disappointment and dejection washed over the Dean, who had prepared a speech.
Despite what appeared to be the total sum of parts that made up four filtration systems, he had laid out only three full systems, while the fourth was a different model with similar parts, serving no purpose other than to confuse. In their scramble to chaotically barter for the necessary components, the contestants would first create bad blood by having the group with access to the instruction manuals trade for essentials, ensuring individual success. As a direct result, at least one group would realise that irrevocably, having given away an essential part, they had been duped. The remaining three may then become the target of sabotage, as the only way to avoid disqualification is to ensure that at least one other team failed, or reached a stalemate.
Furthermore, as a result of unplanned, chaotic bartering, confusion would arise, resulting in a scenario where blame and praise would further decay teamwork. Historically, Luo recalled that when Jiantong had utilised a similar exercise, the winner had memorised the manuals, then bartered all four away for multiple core components to two teams, leaving one to be utterly exploited, thereby completely demolishing their competitor’s chances. For the two surviving teams, an embittered process had caused tempers to flare, exposing the best and worst of the contestants.
What Gwen was now doing was thus unprecedented.
The girl was facilitating exchanges to benefit her opponents.
Had she figured out the rules of the contest? The Dean mulled unpleasantly. It was highly improbable that anyone should know of his intent in advance. He had been subtle in his phrasing, not to mention every other contestant had exactly reacted as Luo had anticipated.
With Gwen's approach, rather than losing points for self-preservation, aggression, or subversive actions, Gwen and her team were gaining points for cooperation with every item exchanged even as the remaining three teams did their best to undermine one another’s chances at completing their device first. The devious thing, Dean noticed, was that Gwen's team had no point-deductions at all.
A win via win-win? The Dean grunted. Was the girl trying to exercise the ethos of the Middle Path?
“DONE!” Bai Tei stepped back from the completed filtration unit. “We’re first!”
“Well done!” Gwen clapped from across the dividing line.
Bai's team exhaled collectively. Even toward the end, Gwen had no tricks up her sleeve, like forcing them to offer up their almost-completed filter.
“I don’t get it.” Bai gathered his team behind him. “What’s in it for you?”
The girl smiled secretly as Richard, Lulan and Jinwei parcelled out the last of their useful parts to teams 3 and 4. By now, Gwen's quadrant was full of unusable trash which Dean Luo had conjured for the express purpose of inciting conflict.
The remaining two teams, consisting of Kitty’s and Karie’s, fell into a stalemate. Each held the parts the other desired and was thus refusing to trade.
Gwen wanted to call out that if they were to exchange components until the final piece, it could come down to sudden death. That would be a fair and square measure of luck and skill, and it would ensure two more filters were completed.
“TIME’S UP!” The Dean returned to the oval, happy that his ploy wasn’t a complete failure. “Gather up!”
The groups again converged, forming two lines.
“I have good news and bad news.” The Dean inspected the lonesome filter.
The gathering of students stiffened.
“As stated, the goal of this exercise, your primary objective, is for your group, and that means all of you, to reconstruct the filters as soon as possible.”
Karie’s party, consisting of Rene, Jiro and Eunae, blinked as they exchanged hostile glances with Kitty’s party, consisting of Miriam, Anita and Tsai.
Senior Bai cast a curious glance at Gwen, who looked entirely at ease for a group that had not attempted a single filter.
“Likewise, this is an exercise for us, the examiners, to observe your ability to lead, follow and achieve Quest objectives, as well as to demonstrate creative thinking, problem-solving, negotiation and conflict resolution.”
The Dean gave the failed groups a wilting glare, ignoring the smiling Gwen.
“If this was the IIUC, then you'd all be back on the ship tomorrow. You have already lost the Match for Fudan.”
“The origin of this exercise harkens back to 1993,” the Dean continued. “The objective for the second round of the IIUC, set in Inner Mongolia, was the restoration of the Frontier District’s drinking supply. However, the shipment of filter parts had been waylaid by Centaur hordes, resulting in less than six functioning arrays. For this Quest, Fudan had been pitted against Tsinghua and Tokyo U. Having collected core components in their first foray, our friends from Japan managed to reconstruct two filtration systems within their assigned District. As for our parties, they managed one unit each, both as a result of having lost parts to a spell scuffle and having failed at bartering with Tokyo U for the necessary components. For this reason, Tokyo U managed 678 CCs, disqualifying our measly 320 CCs.”
“In hindsight, the primary purpose of the exercise was the preservation of the Districts, which was impossible without planar filtration for the supply of clean drinking water. Within the ruling, any action significantly contributing to your primary objective was awarded CCs. Had a team aided in the reconstruction of all six units, their CC count would have exceeded 600, excluding time-completion bonus and kill counters!”
The other members slowly turned their eyes toward Gwen, some worshipful, others suspicious and hostile.
“Therefore!” the Dean barked. “Let this exercise be a lesson in myopia! Let not your desire to win, to reign over others, cloud your judgement! Always keep your eyes on the true objective of the quest. Think critically! That is the purpose and method of the IIUC!”
“That’s horse shit,” Karie, the Diviner, mumbled under her breath.
A few of the others, mostly Clanners, agreed.
The Dean ignored them.
“Gwen,” he called out to his dearest troublemaker. “Bai as well, I want to talk to the both of you. As for the rest - dismissed! Results will be out by Monday.”
“Gwen, thanks.” Senior Bai gave his junior a thumbs up.
“Shall we?” Gwen stepped aside as to follow her Senior. Along the way, she glanced at Kitty, who stood dejected and shaking, then followed the Dean as to escape the humid heat of the field for the cool interior of his office.