As an Orange Zone, Yancheng formed the largest prefecture in the Jiangsu Frontier, bordering Lianyungang to the north and Nantong to the south, with the Yellow Sea marking most of its coastal waters.
Like most of China’s coastal cities, the region had existed since antiquity. It's etymology - consisting of ‘salt’ and ‘city’, was derived from the region's abundance of sea salt.
When a nation as large as China needed salt for internal consumption and export, it could afford no half measures when building its coastal salterns. During the summer season, hundreds-of-thousands of shallow brine pools dotted Yancheng’s shores, fed by ten-thousand channels extending twenty kilometres inland.
During high tide, a torrent of concentrated sea water, dredged up by undersea currents, deposited millions of litres of brackish-brine, attracting innumerable Halophilic monsters desperate for the white-pink mounds. Once inland, the beasts were met by half a million labourers, their skin split and encrusted, their blood and sweat mingling into the crystalline mass.
From Yancheng’s ISTC station, Fudan’s 2004 IIUC team trekked its way from the splendour of the city into the mud-strewn countryside, the asphalt below them changing from tar, to gravel and finally to crushed stones long shattered into to jagged shards by haulier-trucks.
The city’s labourers, hard boiled by the relentless summer sun, raised their half-blinded eyes to regard the troop of fair-skinned Mages making way toward the coast, their mouths grinning with delight, revealing tea-stained teeth yellow with age.
Though their life wasn’t easy by any means, Yancheng was a generous city.
Thanks to the District General's abundant investments, their children attended school, with those who excelled receiving an opportunity to attend the civil exams in Shanghai or Beijing. For families whose lineage produced a Mage, they would receive an apartment in Yancheng's inner Districts, and their progeny was free to attend the state's Spellcraft academy.
Thus enchanted with friendly faces, the workers waved at the intrusion of pallid bodies so dissimilar to their own, dreaming of one day seeing their scions returning in similar triumph.
"Don't you think the people here are so much friendlier?" Gwen waved back. "You don't see happy peasants like this back in outer Shanghai."
"Life expectancy is about mid-forty here." Richard gave his cousin a gentle pat on the head. "It's an Orange Zone, the mana here mangles their bodies, but the salt is worth much more than the lives of NoMs."
"Oh..." Her hands suddenly felt like lead.
"But you know," Richard wisely observed. "Better here than D-109!"
The flailing, armoured horse-shoe crab ruptured, spraying bright blue-ichor across the salt. Built like a tank and impervious to low-tier magic, it was the thing's own misfortune for choosing Lulan as its opponent.
"Good work Lulu!"
The group appraised Lulan's demonstration.
As a part of their journey across the salterns, the members each displayed their spells on the occasional monster that barred their way.
Watching the briny-blue blood, Gwen raised a hypothesis.
“Do you think it’ll work?” She licked her parched lips, tasting the salt in the air. “Salt is Negative energy and Water, right?”
“I doubt it.” Richard shook his head. "I don’t think Caliban will gain Affinity that way. Even assuming these Monsters have traces of Negative Energy, your Affinity is too high and theirs too low.”
“So you’re saying there’s a chance?” Gwen grinned.
“You could try.” Her cousin shrugged. “I’d imagine anything alive isn't going to be rich in naturally-occurring Negative Energy…”
Realising Dick was right, Gwen cursed her cousin’s astute observation.
“Gwen.” A Message spell blossomed beside her ear. “I see something.”
Above the group, choosing to be alone, Kitty had volunteered to be their spotter. When the girl thrice refused Gwen's invitation, Gwen deployed Maymyint to act on her behalf. Over dinner at Mayuree's apartment, Gwen had sat the three of them down to air old grievances. Meekly, the Mage from Kunlun had offered an apology, going so far as to drop to her knees before Gwen forcibly picked her up by the shoulder. According to Kitty, it was Gwen’s closeness to Mayuree, which she thought was undeserving, that was the root cause of their antagonism. As for Gwen’s part, she wholeheartedly forgave her IIUC companion.
“It’s a Salt Fish,” Kitty updated her observation. “Big one, too.”
“Alright, everyone-” Bai raised a hand. “Who wants to take this one?”
“Me! I would.” Gwen pointed to a comically salt-encrusted Caliban. “I think you guys should get used to seeing Caliban eat.”
Both Jiro and Rene moved up keenly, wondering what new nasty surprises Caliban had in store. They had already seen plenty through their practice duels, but her Void Worm had a knack for surprises.
“As a forewarning,” Gwen informed the others. “Keep a comfortable distance until you get used to it.”
“SHAAAA!” Caliban burped, returning to its Master briefly before once again turning invisible.
“Mao, that was something else.” Anita hugged the shivering Eunae. “What a horrible way to die.”
“I hear you.” Jiro closed his eyes for a moment before opening them again. “So that’s the spider-form?”
“Yes.” Gwen landed beside her team. “If we get a chance, I’ll show everyone Cali’s stag-form. It’ll take most of my vitality though, so fingers crossed we run into plenty of biomass.”
“How was the bug?” Richard enquired.
The ‘bug’, as it were, was a gigantic silver-fish encrusted with hardened salt from head to toe. Creatures such as these were usually passive, choosing to hide inside its armour while it demolished Yancheng’s salt stockpiles. Not bothering with penetrating its carapace, Gwen had Caliban's spider-form flip the thing over with its scything claws, then devoured it from the middle, where its exoskeleton was the softest.
“Could be better.” Gwen swallowed the tingling pleasure with a poker face. The bug registered a three on the Nephres' Scale. “The vitality barely made up what I had to spend.”
“They process salt for a living and stay virtually stationary,” Richard sniggered. “Not much vigour is needed to live the life of a salted fish.”
The rest of the party burst into laughter at Richard’s wordplay.
‘Salted Fish,’ as it were, was slang for a no-good-lay-about.
“Kitty, how far to our destination?”
“Two hours across the salterns, or twenty minutes if we fly.”
“Well, ladies and gents?” Gwen turned to her party. “More sight-seeing? Or shall we get to our lodging?”
“Two more hours of salt flats?” Rene brushed a fine powder of salt from her jet-black hair. “No thanks.”
“Let’s get going then.” Bai lifted into the air.
Of the party, Richard, Jiro and Eunae were the only ones who did not possess the actual Flight spell. Richard himself could manage thanks to Lea, though his flight made for disastrous dog-fighting. Jiro and Eunae conversely managed through Magical Items. Of the many items banned in the competition, those granting basic 'Flight' were not among that number.
One by one, the group fell into a V formation.
“Eek!” Eunae shrieked as they passed an assemblage of several hundred bronze-skinned workers.
Gwen and the others halted in alarm, only to burst out in laughter.
Eunae was flying through the air with her legs clamped and her hands tightly pulling against the hem of her skirt. As a result, she was having trouble bracing her forward momentum.
“No one forewarned Eunnie?” Gwen turned to her peers suspiciously. She was wearing full-length spats, Lulan and Anita wore their military cargos, while Rene and Kitty wore jeans.
“I completely forgot.” Anita grinned, smacking her thin lips. “I mean, Eunae's charming enough to eat.”
“Muuuu!” Eunae growled, shaking a fist. The threat couldn't have been more adorable.
The others each expressed varying degrees of mirthfulness.
“I have a pair of pants you can use.” Their Captain handed over an impressive pair of men’s trousers.
“She can use it as a tube dress, Captain!” Jiro hollered at the ballooning cargo pants Tei offered the girl. Compared to Gwen, their Korean compatriot was indeed a pocket-sized pixie. “She’ll be blown away!”
“Bloody oath you guys.” Gwen snorted, exasperated by the good-natured teasing; happy that for once, she wasn't the ass on display. “If that's the case, Eunnie and I will go ahead.”
Gwen scoped up Eunae by the waist and her legs, then shot forward with a burst of speed, gesturing for the others to follow. “Trust me. They can't see anything at this speed!”
The Kirin sorceress tightened her grip.
"Wait!" Eunae panicked, but it was too late.
"To infinity and beyond!"
The team arrived at Lanyan Manor, exhausted from the constant acceleration.
Long distance flying not only relied on concentration and mana pool but exhausted one’s physical constitution. Velocity wise, at a reasonable pace, a flyer without Air affinity could manage twenty-odd kilometres per hour. Conversely, a full-paced hustle burning mana reserves could reach eighty-odd kilometres an hour.
Of the flight group, it was Kitty who reigned supreme, but none could come close to Gwen’s lightning-trailed, full-throttle afterburners.
Besides the team, Eunae sat to one side, wild-haired and wide-eyed, blowing bubbles through her lips.
“Does hair-preserving magic exist?” Gwen pulled at her wind-tunnelled hair, dismayed at its stubborn resistance. After a few discouraging attempts, she tied off a bushy ponytail.
“I am sure there are coiffure spells out there.” Anita’s gelled crop remained unsullied by their hasted travel. “Or magic items made for that purpose.”
“Or something like an aerodynamic barrier.” Gwen picked out a bug from her shirt. If she had been slower with her Shield, Eunae would have copped one in the grill. “I’d hate to imagine what would have happened if I had my mouth open; it's not every day I have Eunae with me.”
Exhausted chortles addressed her ill humour.
The District they now arrived in was Dafeng, one of the original townships belonging to the Clan of Fung. An ancient town, the region remained rich with fauna, producing all kinds of exotic fare for Shanghai’s insatiable markets.
According to Senior Bai, there existed a legend long ago that beneath Dafeng was a Dragon Vein, re-classified in the 21st century as a ley-line.
As an Orange Zone Frontier, Dafeng was additionally famous for producing a unique fauna called the Mirage Deer, or ‘Milu’, a chimeric monster with ‘the tail of a donkey, the head of a horse, the hoofs of a cow, the antlers of a deer.' Most famously, the Milu held within their body a scent-gland which could substitute for ambergris.
Across Yancheng, the local population worshipped the Milu, long associated with the legend of the Dragon-vein. To many, an abundance of these benign and skittish creatures indicated the region was safe from disaster or invasion.
“Famously,” Senior Bai explained as the servants brought the Mages drinking water in silver vessels. “The Communists hunted the Milu for their musk-gland, said to possess a scent that induced heavenly hallucinations. As a result, the CCP almost lost Dafeng because of a local rebellion. It took the public execution of the local Secretary to pacify the District.”
“Not a Purge?” Gwen’s response was one of surprise.
“Dafeng’s production of salt had to be maintained.” Bai pointed to the distant salt fields. “And it was Patriarch Shen from the Nantong Fungs who delivered the verdict.”
Such is life, Gwen observed. This far out from the city, the CCP’s centralised command structure gave way to regional allegiances. Likewise, only by monopolising the natural resources of the Jiangsu Frontier could the Clan of Fung swallow a project as ambitious as Tonglv canal.
"We're ready for you, ma'am," the team's NoM housekeeper, a womanly matron, informed them with a bow. "Please forgive our tardiness."
"No worries, it's our fault for arriving ahead of schedule," Gwen apologised.
The estate Fudan rented was a property volunteered by the Fungs, a fully furnished, 12th-century abode sitting at the saddle of a low-rising hill. To its rear, a vast bamboo forest swayed, gently brushing its whitewashed walls of chalk. From the left side, the manor's frontage offered a view of the salt plains, while to the right, untouched marshland kissed the county of Shenyang, just visible on the horizon.
Each of the contestants had a room to themselves, though this far from the mana-grid and the waterworks, the ancient estate lacked modern amenities. Not keen on the compost bathrooms the NoMs had dug out at the property’s rear, Gwen offered her Portable Habitat to her team, setting up the portal on the central dais of the courtyard as to provide hot showers and flushing toilets.
“Woa, fancy!” Rene, who came from a military family, was suitably impressed. “How the hell did you get your hand on one of these? Portable Habitats are restricted military hardware.”
“She’s Secretary Song’s granddaughter,” Jiro reminded the Magma Mage. Already, the two fire-oriented casters had grown close. “What’s a few trips to the surplus storage under the CCP Tower?”
“Ha.” Gwen chose not to expose the origin of her pilfered Portable Habitat. “At any rate, here’s the glyph key. It’ll change every 24 hours, so Message me if you’re locked out.”
For the next three weeks, leaving from Lanyan Manor, the students ventured out in twos and threes, courting trouble.
In laymen’s terms, it meant the students formed small hunting parties to roam the countryside, visiting counties, speaking to the village heads, finding Monsters to murder and warrens to clear.
As summer brought the peak season for the production of sea salt, a deluge of Salt Fish, Ripper Claws, White Hoppers, Marsh Worms and the occasional Saltmire Merfolk threw themselves toward mountainous piles of gleaming pink crystals.
Day by day, pair by pair, rapport grew between her teammates.
Unsurprisingly, the others took an immediate liking to Richard, whose experience as an Adventurer brought respect and acknowledgement. Lulan likewise enjoyed working with Rene and Jiro, finding accord through their like-minded personalities. Curiously, ever since her beating, Kitty had taken up talking with Lulan as well, making Gwen wonder if Kitty too had a masochistic streak.
On the matter of tactics and teamwork, Senior Bai had asked Gwen to practice on the others her mastery of Dimension Door. Now unrestrained by regulations against Teleportation within the city limits, they enacted the torturous training known as ‘how many DDs can you travel with Gwen before seeing rainbows’. Thus far, Lulan held the record at twenty-two casts with ten-second intervals, while Eunae managed just five before she painted the pavement.
In between errands, Gwen engaged the group in ice-breaking exercises from her old world. Everything from Truth and Lie, where each member shared two ‘truths’ and a ‘lie’ about themselves, to Spellcraft Survival, where each team of three contestants had to scramble for a stack of spell-cards, then explain how they would survive a Black Zone using only these spells.
Additionally, she had been busy preparing a secret surprise of her own - the creation of a memorable experience with which to conceive an empathic resonance between her teammates, engendering sympathy and camaraderie.
Her rationale was simple - a robust sense of fellowship was necessary to offset the conflicts of interest that may soon be in play.
That was why, with the help of Magister Walken, his winged serpent, as well as Ariel VR, she tracked down a herd of Milu.
From above, the chimeric creatures indeed appeared as their moniker suggested - combining donkey, horse, cow and the massive antlers of a deer into a single animal. From the scale-patterned fur on the beast’s back, Gwen suspected that they were diluted Draconic-fauna. The problem was how she was going to drive a herd of these creatures back toward Lanyan Manor.
“Eeee!” Ariel offered a solution.
“You can?” She was surprised by the clarity of her Familiar’s empathic communiqué. Her creature was becoming more and more intelligent every day, evidence that Walken and Dean Luo’s training was paying off.
“EE!” Ariel assured her.
“Alright, here goes.”
She willed a volley of draconic-essence into her Familiar.
Above the Milu, Ariel materialised, shedding its invisibility. When the Milu readied their long limbs for a hasted escape, her Kirin let loose a burst of Dragon-fear.
As one, the Milu froze.
“EEE!” Ariel pawed through the air.
“Eeeer?” the leading stag bleated, expelling the contents of its bladder.
Half a kilometre away, Gwen wordlessly watched the spectacle through Ariel’s eyes.
Did deer speak? She asked herself. Could venison feel?
Ariel informed her it was safe to approach.
Three teleports later, she was among the mystical Milu, smelling an awful mouldy dankness that only carpets fermenting for decades in a swamp could produce. How were the Milu were prized for perfume again?
“EE!” Ariel’s resplendent horns sparked.
One of the Milu turned away from Gwen, then without warning, sprayed her with something from its anal glands.
“Ari-!” Gwen burst into tears. She had not put up a shield because that would have been the last she'd see of the Milu. More importantly, her mouth was open. “Oh…”
In the next moment, a heavenly scent encompassed her sinus.
The fragrance was indescribable, as though a masterful perfume maker had distilled rosewood and sandalwood, bergamot and lavender, together with all the wildflowers on the marsh into a musky concoction.
“Oh my.” The fragrant was so heady as to make her momentarily dazed. “Milu No.5?”
Now that Gwen was marked and scented, the creatures visibly relaxed.
Heeding her creature’s command, Gwen channelled a mote of Almudj’s Essence into her forefinger.
The leading Milu approached, gingerly sniffed her glowing green mote on her palm, then lapped her hand clean.
“Eeeeer!” the buck leapt into the air, taking flight for a dozen meters, then landed with a wet thunk.
“That’s good, eh?” She was beginning to see Ariel’s plan. “Gather up, plenty for everyone! You wanna eat, you gotta work!”
A minute later, she was surrounded by a dozen Milu, furiously licking away, filling the swampland air with their scented blessings.
Who'd have thought? Gwen sighed - that one day she too would be a Disney Princess.
Up above, a discrete observational distance away, with the manner of an antagonist warlock stepfather, Eric Walken hovered with an active suite of diagnostic magic, an eye in the sky scrutinising his ward below.
At first, he thought Gwen had wanted to hunt illicit game to feed her friend, or perhaps bolster Caliban with a new form. What he had in turn witnessed was the strangest thing, a girl feeding monstrous creatures viridescent essence while they furiously muzzled, licked and nudged her to and fro.
With a bell-beat of fluttering wings, his Coatl descended, seeing no reason why it should resist its impulsive desire for the emerald essence.
Weren’t the Milu supposed to be rare and noble, skittish and impossible to capture? Walken scoffed at the fawning venison below. Why was it that with Gwen, nothing could be normal?
On the last night of the training camp, the team's two leaders extracted the ingredients for a dumpling feast.
“I had it packed before we left,” Gwen boasted with self-satisfaction. “They’re from Yang’s, on Gouding Road. All we have to do is make it!"
Under a Milky Way unsoiled by light pollution from the city, sweltering beside boiling pots, the Fudan 2004 IIUC team folded dumplings and made chit-chatter, laughing at one another's failed attempts at wrapping dough.
Kitty, Anita, Eunae and Richard ate their pork-n-cabbage dumpling as is, while Gwen, Lulan and Anita preferred chilli and vinegar. On the far right, Rene and Jiro huffed over the crushed remains of ghost-pepper, audibly ventilating from the chilli oil.
“Tei, you’re going to die,” Gwen observed. Senior Tei wasn't good with chilli.
“Eunae,” Bai implored their Cleric seriously. “Drop me a Revitalise.”
"Revitalise!" Eunae acceded as Bai delivered another morsel to his lips.
“Ah-,” Bai lamented, closing his eyes. “That hits the spot; I am going to miss this taste in a few years.”
Nodding sympathetically, Gwen topped up the supply of rice wine, taking the opportunity to deliver a well-timed speech.
“Friends, teammates, comrades! Lend me your ears!” She raised a shimmering glass, its surface brimming with prohibitively expensive Mao-tai.
The rest of her team likewise raised their cups.
“Within a week, we shall venture from Shanghai into Burma, taking our first step toward the International Inter-University Competition! Therefore, I would like to offer a toast - to us, to Fudan, and to the future!”
“Ganbei!” A clatter of glasses echoed through the night.
“I believe I speak for many of us when I say that our prospects are daunting. From our familiar campus, we shall venture into the blue-dark of battlefields unknown. But - in our endeavour, let us know no fear; for we set sail beyond Shanghai's shores for fame, fortune and friends. As we step into each new continent, facing enemies hostile and competitors fierce, let us know no doubt; for each new challenge, difficult as they shall be - is an opportunity.”
“Thank you," Gwen's voice reached a new crescendo. "For all of us, the IIUC is a detour on our Path of Spellcraft, we take this road, not for ease - but for potential. By stepping where no leaf had been trodden black, we shall employ the best of our energies so that when we emerge the victors, we shall have exercised our greatest potential!”
"As for our endeavour - I am reminded of Sir George Mallory, a Magister who perished mapping Everest. Once, a detractor demanded of Sir Mallory, ‘Why are you doing this?’ The Magister's response has since stuck with me. ‘Because it’s there,’ he had said, 'why try, if not for the tallest peak?'”
“Well.” Gwen raised another thimble. “For the spring of our youth, the IIUC is our peak, and together, hand in hand, arm in arm, we are going to reach for the top! TOAST!”
“For the IIUC!”
“Ariel!” Gwen sounded out internally. “Do it now!”
Without warning, a viridescent Ariel lit up the night.
“What’s it doing up there?”
“Barbanginy!” Gwen allowed the channelled mana to flow through her Conjuration conduits, piling on the collated ethanol she'd drank all night.
An emerald halo erupted across the starry vista, forming a sudden Aurora Australis as Almudj’s blessing poured into the essence infused Elemental Sphere, adjusted for maximum displacement.
When eventually her breathless teammates looked down from the celestial spectacle, they were met with yet another miracle.
“Mao! Milu! Senior Bai! It’s the Milu!” Rene called out, spilling her drink.
“Ancestors!” Even Tei Bai felt his jaws unhinge.
From the hillside, a dozen Milu rode toward them, encircling the young Mages who stood to receive them.
“What an omen!” Anita touched a hand to her lips. “I can’t believe it!”
“A blessing!” Jiro looked up at Ariel, then at Gwen. “From the goddess of victory herself.”
Bathed in the emerald light from above, Richard reached Gwen’s side.
“Thank you.” He embraced her in an uncharacteristic act of piety. “I never thought we’d come so far, so quickly.”
“Dick.” Their fingers touched. “I want to thank you as well. Without your support, I may not have gotten here at all.”
Lulan was next, though the girl was more direct, opting straight away for hugging Gwen tightly and digging her face into Gwen’s bosom.
“Kitty?” Gwen opened her arms, indicating to the wide-eyed straggler. “Mia’s not here, and I’ve got a vacancy.”
The Ice Mage’s lowered her head, the smile that had just touched her face suddenly fading from her lips. Rigidly, the petite sorceress turned away.
“Kitty, don't play the coy maiden. You know you want it!” Rene, mistaking Kitty’s body language for bashfulness, took the girl by the arm and pulled her unwillingly closer.
“Me too!” Jiro, incited by the friendly atmosphere, pushed Rene and Kitty into Gwen’s arms. "Anita, come on!"
"Ah, whatever." The stoic Senior Bai let himself go, bringing Eunae, who was desperately trying to reign Luyi away from the Milu.
Soon, trapping an asphyxiating Kitty inside a human sardine ball, the team huddled for the first time.
At Ariel’s command, the group of Milu approached.
“Shut your eyes!” Gwen called out, though her warning was drowned out by the crush of bodies. “Close your mouths!”
One by one, the deer turned their fluffy tails toward the group, then gave the soon to be traumatised humans the benedictions for which the Mirage Deer were famous.