“That’s true.” The Dean acknowledged her proposal in a way that Gwen felt bordered on insult. “Thanks to that display, I’d almost forgot your exotic mental predicament. We wouldn't want that flaring up in the middle of a match now. Still, promise me you won't just do as you please.”
“I will listen to Senior Bai to the best of my abilities,” Gwen assured the Dean.
“And I will heed Gwen's advice as needed,” Tei promised besides her. “We’re a team, as she said.”
“You can work it out among yourselves.” The Dean affirmed approvingly. "I am glad we have finalised the list. Two months left until our first match, have you lodged your deferment?”
“I’d prefer to keep studying,” Gwen stated. “Semester Two is going to start anyway.”
“I am afraid that’s impossible. You’ll be travelling in and out of Shanghai starting August,” the Dean reminded her. “It's normal for students to defer their studies during the IIUC - or are you saying you’re not confident you’ll last until February?”
February inferred the final match, not to mention the much-lauded award ceremony seen around the world.
“There’s much studying to be done before a match as well, you’ll receive the location and a general guideline for the match weeks prior, though as for the fine details of the Quest, you won't know until the day.”
At the Dean's insistence, Gwen reassessed her schedule.
Should she defer? It was probably the right idea. She wasn’t so arrogant to think she could pass her courses while travelling away for two weeks every month for four months, then again well into February, not to mention there remained work to be done in Nantong and with the House of M.
“I shall heed your advice, Sir. Thank you.” Gwen bowed.
The Dean gave her a paternal pat on the head.
“I look forward to your performance, Miss Song.”
“Of course.” Gwen received the Dean’s benediction. “I’ll be sure not to disappoint!”
“Good. Tei, what do you think about the team makeup?” The Dean turned to Tei. “Sound me out.”
“Of course, Sir.” Tei bowed. “The core members are me, Gwen and Karie. The teams are flexible, but ordinarily, I would suggest the three of us plus a member for Control, for example, Richard or Kitty, and another Offence, such as Lulan, Rene or Jiro, depending on environment and our competition's makeup.”
“Conversely, for missions requiring mobility, I’d suggest replacing myself with Anita, bring in Richard to replicate my counter-dispelling, then Kitty and or Lulan. For base defence Quests, we can split the teams, with a mobile strike team emphasising firepower, while Jiro would work wonders on defence with his persistent flames. So long as Gwen remains in play with her Familiars, we shouldn't have issues with small-scale encounters.”
“I notice our Cleric appears to be missing. You haven’t seen the synergy between Gwen and a Positive Energy user yet, have you?”
The Dean chuckled.
“Make sure you do. Now, what’s your opinion on our two trouble makers?”
“Karie isn’t normally so obtuse,” Tei defended his former team member. “I’ll speak to her when I get the chance. Maybe it’s something at home.”
“Kitty should come around,” Gwen defended her ‘friend’ as well, thinking perhaps Mia or Miss Maymyint could help. “I’ll convince her, one way or another.”
“Then I shall rest reassured.” The Dean tapped the table thoughtfully. “It is possible to replace members mid-competition, but only if they’re dead or incapacitated. Concurrently, there’s also a penalty for bringing in members mid-competition due to casualties: five per cent, if I recall correctly, so let’s not make any mistakes. If those two are not suitable…”
Fudan's Captain and Vice-Captain both gulped.
“Not that I am without confidence in the two of you.” The Dean cleared his throat. “But you should spend time with your team. I am thinking of sending you all to get to know each other in an Orange Zone, nothing too serious, a light exercise.”
“That would be ideal, Sir.” Gwen’s eyes lit up. “We can do synergy building!”
“Yes, I'd thought you might have something in mind. I’ll let you know when I have the details. It’ll have to be somewhere isolated, and a senior staff member will accompany you.”
“Of course, Sir.”
“Then that’s it. I'll put out the notice. You two, stay out of trouble.”
Bai and Gwen both bowed.
“You especially.” The Dean gave Gwen an expectant look. “Stay clean for two months!”
Monday-week: a semi-circle of students studied the bulletin board.
2004 IIUC Final Selection:
Offence: Gwen Song (Vice Captain)
Offence: Lulan Li
Offence: Rene Mui
Offence: Jiro Peng
Defence: Bai Tei (Captain)
Defence: Anita Wong
Control: Richard Huang
Control: Kitty Liang
Utility: Karie Mok
Utility: Eunae Lee
"Do you think they'll broadcast this year's IIUC?" an anonymous voice raised an important question.
"They better." A member of the Fudan DC slapped the first on the back. "I, for one, look forward to seeing our Captain and the Worm Handler on Vid-cast!"
Karie Mok sat in the living room of her family’s estate, drowning out the silence by cranking up the Vid-caster.
With a clumsy fumble, she poured herself a thimble of her father’s Zhuyeqing, a white wine fermented in the hollow of a still-growing giant bamboo, then knocked it back in one gulp.
The sticky alcohol crawled down her throat like a line of fire, its vitality flushing her body with a gradual warmness that dispelled the bone-chilling paranoia she had acquired since returning from Dean Luo's competition.
The day prior, she had spoken to Tei Bai, and the two of them had parted amicably, with Karie promising to perform her duty.
Now, she was regretting everything.
“Young Miss…” Lao Gu, an old butler of the family that had followed her from Shandong when she was just a child, eyed the bottle nervously. Like most of the city’s fu-er-dai, his young miss was prone to occasional excess.
Ignoring the NoM, Karie poured herself another thimble.
Though she wasn’t the future-telling sort of Diviner, she wasn't imperceptive enough to ignore her Sigil. What her gut feeling told her was that under no circumstances should she further involve herself with Gwen Song.
The paralysing dread had caught her entirely unaware, as only a week ago, she had been filled with optimism and hope that 2004 was going to be different.
Yesteryear, their Team Captain had been an arrogant Clanner from the Wutang mountains, a Kenshi from one of the oldest sects in China. He had ignored Vice-Captain Bai’s advise at every turn, going so far as to antagonise the intelligence Karie had Scried when she contradicted his assessments. In Tibet, as a result of the idiot’s decision to play the ‘fisherman’ against the ‘clam and the crane’, Tsinghua had taken the egg while the rest of them were left fending off a very angry mama-Roc.
So this year, when Tei told her that he was vying to be Captain, she had naturally assumed that she was going to be his second. That way, cooler heads would prevail, not to mention as the only Diviner and the team’s chief source of intelligence, she was the pragmatic option.
The addition of Gwen Song had been another reason why Karie had been glad to be participating in her final IIUC. The new girl was phenomenal, her talents and her combat track-record both unmatched - if rumours could be believed. Through her family connections, Karie had verified that the girl had out-duelled Wonsoo Liu, the famous Battle Mage. If so, it meant that Fudan had a powerhouse on par with low-tier Magisters from the Front. With herself in command and Bai wielding Gwen Song, breaking through the Asian round was assured. Merely imagining a Jap Shikigami eating a Void-sphere to its Core was enough to send shivers down Karie's spine.
A shiver without cessation.
When they had met face to face, a sudden sliver of eldritch ice had pierced Karie's spine, then twisted its sinews and nerves until her face was bloodless. During the exchange, when the Void sorceress twice attempted to speak to Karie, the Diviner's nerves had revolted.
Instinctively, she wanted to leave there and then, but she couldn't risk losing so much 'face'. The price of quitting was too high, even if her Sigil warned that attending the IIUC with Gwen Song meant courting death.
She cursed her second-rate bloodline.
To drop out now - what would her parents think? Of course, the IIUC was dangerous, her father would say, of course, people died. But she went to the last one, didn’t she? If she was afraid, why had she joined in the first place? Furthermore, she wasn’t the foretelling sort of Diviner, so who knew if her prediction was even accurate? Chalk it up to nerves! Her parents would say. She should toughen up and get on with it! Chairman Mao didn’t give up on the Long March even knowing that most of his comrades would perish!
And they would be right.
Would her father give up on a venture because he might lose money? Would the army stop protecting its citizens because PLA Mages may perish?
Karie wasn’t the Oracle of Delphi; she was just a young woman, a mundane one at that. She wanted to be an Intelligence Officer, maybe work in the Central Bureau, serving as the occasional Field Officer only when needed, ideally a safe distance away from the Front.
But this was death! Her prescience pierced her morbid mind. She had to choose life!
Having never imperilled life and limb, she couldn’t imagine how such a thing was going to happen. Was Gwen Song going to murder her? Was a Mongolian Deathworm how she met her end? Perhaps the Void sorceress would err in a moment of crisis, then Karie would die in an uneventful accident.
Ensnared by visions and revisions, the Diviner floated between decision and destiny. Was it even possible to change fate?
She took another sip.
The throbbing in her head dulled.
The pinging of her Sigil quelled.
She felt like a proverbial carp wedged between a rock and a hard place.
After all, what was the point of being famous, and deceased?
“A toast to the 2004 Fudan IIUC team members!”
A few minutes into the party, Karie Mok knew she was going to be sick.
It didn’t take a Diviner to foretell that turning up to a mixer with a hangover wasn’t the best idea.
The group had gathered at Gwen Song’s behest at M on the Bund, a chic riverside cafe overlooking the most scenic stretch of the Huangpu River. In the past, Karie had once or twice enjoyed high tea with her friends here.
That a section had been cleared out and reserved solely for ten university students was a scene she’d never expected. Even for someone at her family’s stratum of wealth, it seemed like a waste of money.
Gingerly, hoping that her brain wouldn’t spill from her ears like soup, she scanned the faces sitting around the circular table:
Lulan Li, Senior Tei, Jiro and Anita weren’t affluent by any means. The girl from Seoul, Eunae, wasn’t going to splurge on people she’d never seen before. Kitty Liang? Never heard of her. Richard Huang? She heard he was a workaholic. It meant that only Gwen Song had the clout to burn the hundred odd HDMs necessary to empty a place like M on the Bund for something as trivial as a celebratory dinner.
Karie wasn’t opposed to diplomatic generosity, but when the host was stuffing her to a barrel to throw her into the Huangpu River, she could hardly summon the enthusiasm expected of her.
In a moment, the entrée arrived, a fist-sized 'drunken' South Sea Scampi ceviche in shell, served over a bed of crystalline lychee flesh.
Karie held her breath.
The rich aroma of sweetened mirin was enough to force her stomach into bouts of convulsion. She wanted to leave, to go home, curl up into a ball, then find a way to call this whole thing off.
“Senior Mok, Are you alright?”
Karie looked up to see a pair of vividly amber-emerald irises bearing down with the weight of mountains.
Gwen Song, resplendent in a shimmering little black dress, had been making the rounds, wooing the contestants, standing so tall in her heels that should her peers slink back in their seats, they could kiss the flesh of her thighs.
“I am okay,” Karie lied. Comparatively, she wore comfortable casual cotton. The invitation had stated semi-formal, except Karie was neither in the mood nor the right state of health to make herself ready.
“You look pale.” The girl reached out with a wayward hand, her white fingers landing gently against Karie's shoulders.
Without warning, a deathly dread engendered.
Her host's touch was vivifying.
Karie almost leapt from her seat; such was the shock surging through her marrows, travelling up her spine to hammer at her teeth, that she bit her tongue.
“Jesus, Karie, you're as white as a sheep!” The accursed Void Sorceress leaned in until her face was an inch away. “Eunae, can you come and see if Karie’s okay? I think she’s coming down with something.”
“No!” Karie turned from the girl's demonic gaze. She took a chunk of raw scampi and threw the translucent flesh into her mouth. “See? I am fine! I just, oh…”
The raw prawn, the mirin, the peculiar crustacean savouriness, all of it was too much.
Before she could swallow, her hangover escaped her body, permeating their group's surroundings with rancid expulsions.
Without expression, Karie's host allowed the admixture of acid and undigested canapè to slide from her shoes.
“Goodness, Karie. Can I get you some water?”
Mao! Was her future murderer trying to kill her with kindness?! The Diviner moaned audibly before raising a foul-smelling hand that sent the rest of the table reeling.
She took Gwen by the hem of her dress.
The girl was fighting her revulsion, Karie could see that, and she was winning.
“I don’t want to go,” Karie begged.
“What?” Gwen blinked.
“Please…” She slumped against the girl's abdomen, pleading and blubbering. “Don’t make me go to the IIUC… I don’t want to die.”
It took several seconds for the rest of the party to fall into a sombre silence.
If anyone else had just said that, they could have laughed it off, but Karie was their Diviner. If a Diviner was begging to leave, what did that foreshadow?
Slick with sick and lukewarm with the foul expulsion of Karie’s gut-wrenching plea, the party’s host turned to regard the rest of her team.
“Don’t worry,” she intoned carefully, keeping her face straight and her smile untouched. “I am sure that's the alcohol talking.”
The rest of the team agreed to reconvene a few days later.
To continue the party after a display like that was impossible. Even if the House of M cleaned up the mess, the glaring asymmetry of their team makeup would only serve to produce paranoia in the team members.
Worse still, the news of Karie’s withdrawal had somehow spread.
Gwen sighed. They weren't the bloody Fellowship of the Ring, but to think they'd suffer a casualty so soon was goddamn disheartening that she couldn't help but feel cursed. She hadn’t expected that they’d become friends quickly, but to think her team would grow distant before they had gotten close was unacceptable.
And this was why she was now in the Dean’s office with Senior Bai, discussing countermeasures.
“I don’t know where else we can find another dedicated Diviner.” Bai exhaled with exasperation. “I am sorry Sir, I failed you.”
“No, no, Mr Bai.” Dean Luo massaged his temples once Gwen and Bai made their case. “One has to wonder what in Mao's crystal tomb was going through Miss Mok’s head. Sufficient to say, her career, in more ways than one, ended before it began, if that makes you feel any better.”
“I don’t blame her,” Gwen intervened on the young Diviner’s part. “Being from the Frontier, I’ve seen death, Sir. I would even say I have come close to experiencing it half a dozen times. Daring death and danger aren't for the faint-hearted; I can entirely empathise with Miss Mok if she lacks the mental fortitude.”
The Dean shook his head.
Were he not confident that Jiantong and their competitors had signed bilateral pacts of non-interference, he'd have suspected foul play. To be caught committing a criminal act against the terms of the IIUC would disqualify the institution for the foreseeable future and drastically undermine one's academic standing. Likewise, if one must move against Fudan, why not target Gwen? Be it bodily harm, scandal, bribery or any other form of creative larceny; each method was superior to forcing out a Diviner he could replace with a dozen lessers.
“This puts our plan in disarray, but alas, there’s good news as well.” To Gwen and Tei's surprise, the Dean grinned. When fate conspired to make one succeed, what could one do but thank the heavens?
“Sir?” His students looked up expectantly.
“Miss Maymyint, you may come in now.”
The two students turned to see the House of M’s premier representative in a python-skin leather outfit that left little to the imagination. When their eyes met, Miss Maymyint’s lips split to form a toothy smile.
“Miss Song, well met.”
“Miss Maymyint!” Gwen gasped. “You’re still here in Shanghai?”
“Business, dear, you should know that. Have you checked your account lately? We've paid you a sizable bonus to aid you in your future endeavours.” Maymyint’s voice drifted across the room sultry and sweet, carrying the slightest hint of a lisp.
“Hahaha…” Gwen answered awkwardly, not wishing to talk shop in front of the Dean. She had indeed checked her account recently. Between her Tonglv coffer and her House of M proceeds, Gwen could purchase an apartment or two near Fudan without crippling her bottom line. Were she not so absurdly busy with matters of magic and the competition itself, she would have invested the money by now, likely into a Wang Group commercial property.
“Miss Maymyint said she wanted to surprise you.” The Dean nodded at the woman, one he had met through the Grey Faction’s trade conferences. “I think we found our Diviner.”
“OH MY GOD, MIA?” Gwen instantly connected the dots, squealing despite herself.
Maymyint affirmed Gwen's hypothesis with a nod.
“Wonderful! How come? She said the House of M wouldn't consent."
"I now consent." Mayuree's eldest sister flashed her pearly teeth. "I am sure Mia would love to help a friend in need."
"Ha! That she does! When will Mia be back?”
“I am afraid she won’t be.”
“W-what?” Gwen caught herself, confused by Maymyint's apologetic expression. “But you said…”
“Your team will be heading over to meet with Miss Mayuree.” A boisterous grin touched his face. “Not only has the House of M entered the IIUC as a sponsor, but they’re also offering to pay for the first round wholesale. Miss Maymyint has told me that Jiantong and our old nemesis, Tokyo U, have both agreed to the location of the first match in Burma.”
“Esteemed sir, it's Myăma.” Maymyint coughed gently.
“Ah, my apologies,” Dean Luo bowed his head. “So: Gwen, Tei, what do you think? It’ll be a home game away from home. Your team will travel to Myăma in October, and Miss Mayuree will meet you there.”
Both Tei and Gwen turned to regard Mayuree’s sister with expressions of awe.
“Hahaha…” Maymyint let loose a string of cackling laughter. “How charming you children look. Think nothing of it. Gwen has brought us many boons, more than she knows.”
Gwen blushed, as did Bai for a different reason. Suddenly her heart filled her with glee and gladness. With a blessing such as this, it was entirely possible to bring the team back on track. With a ‘home ground’ advantage in having the House of M as their sponsor and a member of the House of M on their team, they possessed every advantage.
“Sir, wouldn’t there be a conflict of interest?” Gwen asked just in case.
“You think Oxford and Cambridge play fair when they threw LMU and Sorbonne into the forest of Gwydir?" Dean Luo was in a good mood. "Some of the Brits have Elven blood, you know!”
How was she supposed to know that?
“Gwen, the IIUC Examination Committee is an independent organisation with an oversight committee consisting of European, American and Asian Towers’ senior members,” Bai explained patiently. “Contestants must also submit themselves to surveillance magic by wearing a special beacon on their persons. Having local knowledge doesn't incur a penalty. As a matter of fact, teams are encouraged to visit early to learn the local customs.”
Gwen grimaced; she had almost forgotten this world’s obsession with panopticon surveillance.
"I can hardly wait." She breathed out.
"I know how you feel." Maymyint's eyes formed two thin slits. "You know what they say - absence make the heart fonder!"