“This whole ordeal sounds dodgy,” Gwen said drily, forewarned by Mayuree to be wary of prophecies.
“Yet, stranger things have happened to the both of us,” Jun observed his niece, likewise unsure of what to make of his draconic partner’s ambiguous foreshadowing.
“I suppose. Let’s recap.” Gwen had been taking notes on a slate. “The Tyrant may or may not be Ayxin’s minimum five-hundred-year-old brother, a pure-blooded Thunder Dragon with a raging libido. Likewise, Ruxin was last known to have travelled to Mandalay, the old Burmese royal capital, with the express purpose of banditry, nest-construction and dragon-on-dragon insemination.”
“That's…” Jun smacked his lips, raising both brows. “Surprisingly concise.”
“Also, according to Ayxin, I may be saved by Golos.”
“Not her exact words.” Jun furrowed his brows. “Her exact words were, ‘Golos shall act to prevent Gwen from assured self-destruction, as well as intervene should her life be in imminent threat of annihilation.’”
“Annihilation!” Gwen marvelled at the choice of the Draconian’s diction. “What am I? A flatworm? So if I am only half dead, or enslaved, or trapped in a cave or mildly dismembered, Golos is going to leave me alone?”
“You could interpret it like that.” Jun broke out in cold sweat. “I feel a lot less confident now that you’ve clarified the Yinglong’s condition.”
“You know what I think?” Gwen held her uncle's hand, feeling the clammy skin of his palm. “I think the Yinglong is tempting me to act rashly, thinking that Golos will be there as a fail-safe - when in reality, I could be in all sorts of trouble without Golos needing to step in. For example, Golos can’t come into Shanghai, but I could go right now into the lobby, fire off a dozen Void spells and get booked into Tianlanqiao’s stasis bay. When you think of it like that, this 'save your ass thrice' business is pretty suspect.”
“Please don’t say that.” Jun eyed the security partition nervously. “The walls have eyes.”
“Just a hypothesis.” Gwen grinned. “Don’t worry, Uncle. I know how to take care of myself. I’ve got a whole team with me, and Magister Walken, whose interest and mine coincide, at least for now.”
“Nonetheless, a scorpion is a scorpion,” Jun sagely acknowledged. “Betrayal is in his nature.”
“Oh, but Eric's my arachnid until we dismiss our common goal,” Gwen assured her uncle. “But of course, I’ll be sure to watch my back. Or at least Richard will.”
“His roots go deep, within the Grey Faction I mean, and with the Mageocracy…”
“I’ll be careful, Uncle. Don’t forget, Gunther remains a hard counterspell for a disgraced Magister like Walken.”
“I am just worried about you.”
“… Qīn’s expecting in three weeks,” Jun changed the subject. “I think Hai would be happy if you were to send him a Message, you know - a sign.”
She bit her lip, though it was hard to work up a fury when her uncle Jun had just given her a stout shot of paternal care and security. Despite everyone in her family coming out to see her off, her parents remained absent.
“Alright.” She nodded. As much as she wanted to worry about Walken’s ulterior motives, Ayxin’s vague revelations and her father’s new child, what she should be focusing on was getting to Yangon in one piece, survive the meeting with her Asian regional competitors, then work her way to London to compete for fame, fortune and Evee. “I shall - should I do it now?”
“At your leisure.” Jun coughed guiltily. “But play nice.”
“I am always nice,” she replied sourly. "When am I not nice?"
“Don't sound like such a step-mother,” Jun remarked with a pearl of wry wisdom. “You’re too young for that.”
“Am I not an old soul?”
“Well-” Jun was reminded of the secret they shared. “I suppose there’s that.”
“It’s fine. I'll give Hai my benediction.”
Jun patted her hand in return.
“I should go. The others are waiting for you.”
He opened his arms, and the two shared a hug, with Gwen tagging him with a peck on the cheek.
“Good luck with your egg making, Uncle. You have my benediction.”
Jun gave her an exasperated glance.
“And watch your health - they say too much Dragon isn’t good for your kidneys. Let it come naturally.”
“Get going, you rascal.” Jun gave her a phantom kick in the buttocks.
Leaving her flustered uncle with a wink, she returned to the lobby of the ISTC.
“Gwen! You’re back!” Dean Luo and the others gathered outside were already knee-deep in the media pit.
“Here.” Gwen materialised the signatures Jiro and Rene had requested, as well as additions so that no one else was left out. “Personalised and fresh from the Ash Bringer himself, as requested.”
“I’ll treasure it!” Jiro beamed. “I am thankful!”
“Thanks.” Rene reverently swept her eyes over the scrawled pictogram. “I am going to send this back to my Patriarch!”
The power of the CCP’s propaganda machine was nothing to scoff at, Gwen noted internally. Not even Gunther, a Mage capable of shit-canning a Leviathan the size of a suburb, was instantly recognisable in the middle of a street. Comparatively, when Jun intercepted the team at the ISTC lobby earlier, Rene and Jiro’s eyes almost fell out of their sockets.
“Alright, everyone here? Let’s get a good angle in.” The Dean motioned for the CCVC-1 crew to begin. Sensing an opportunity, Luo had brought with him a Vid-Cast crew from the state’s propaganda office.
The group of young Mages, each arriving at the ISTC separately, had bought their families with them. For Gwen, this included her grandparents, her brother, as well as Mina and Tao. Except for Lulan, who had only Kusu, Eunae, who had no family in Shanghai and Kitty who came alone, the rest were inundated with well-wishes from loved ones.
First came the Dean’s grandiose introduction, after which a suitably large assemblage of rubbernecking spectators added to the already crowded lobby.
“We have full confidence in you lot breaking through the Asian round,” Dean Luo informed the youngsters, winking at the Lumen-recorders. “So say something for the future broadcast!”
As Captain, it was Tei's duty to begin.
“Comrades, greetings. I am Tei Bai, the Captain of the 2004 Fudan IIUC team. I want to make our country, our university and our people proud by showing the world that our nation is ready to join world leaders in the development of Spellcraft. Father, mother, Patriarch Wuyue, please accept my most sincere gratitude for making me who I am today."
Tei dropped to his knees and kowtowed toward a grim-faced man wearing a matching outfit in grey and black, standing amidst a small contingent of Clanners from Taishan, eliciting a round of appreciation from the crowd.
Next was Gwen, who presented an entirely different image to the sombre, funeral-director mien of Tei Bai with her sleeveless dress and tender complexion. With a mote of Essence flashing her irises emerald, she gave the lumen-recorder a bright and vivid smile before delivering her carefully worded portion.
“Hi everyone, I am Gwen Song, Vice-Captain of the team. I would like to thank the city of Shanghai, the knowledge bestowed upon me by Fudan, and the generosity of the Dean in offering us this rare and wonderful opportunity. Over there are two people to whom I am deeply indebted, without whom none of this would have happened. Nainai and Yeye, please accept my most sincere gratitude!”
The crew instantly panned toward the delighted expressions of Gwen’s grandparents as well as the parents of the other students who had come to the ISTC station to fare their scions well. With a twist of her dancer's figure, Gwen skipped between two lumen-recorders to embrace both of her grandparents.
The crowd’s applause exploded. What could be more heartwarming, more picturesque than a scene of filial piety such as this? As for the girl’s parents, who knew? It wasn’t uncommon in this day and age to have a young protégé whose parents had given their all to the state.
“Take care, Gwen.” Her babulya kissed her on the cheeks. “Did Jun say his piece?”
“Yes, Babulya, I’ve got everything I need.”
“Gwen, do not fail-” Guo remained as stoic as ever, his seriousness exacerbated by the presence of the propaganda crew. "-and be careful."
“I will, Grandfather.” Gwen bowed. “Percy!”
Percy tried to hide behind their grandfather but was dragged out by his sister to face the glaring crystalline eyes of the lumen-recorders.
“This is my brother, Percy, future IIUC contestant.” Gwen hugged her sibling from behind. “He will be greater than even myself in the future; I just know it!”
Percy blushed from the immodest and outlandish boast, drawing laughter from around the room.
“Sorry for missing your matches, bud.” Gwen hugged her brother close, pressing their faces together as the CCVC crew moved on to their next target. “As compensation, I’ll bring back something nice.”
She remained with her family while the rest of the crew followed her suit, choosing to stand with their relatives to maintain the motif of filial piety.
When the crew got to Lulan, she instead retrieved Gwen, making her doubly flustered as the Sword Mage heaped praise on her saviour, aided by a grateful Kusu, choking like a misty-eyed father sending their child off to the first day of school.
Richard was no better, again redirecting back toward Gwen. Thankfully, her cousin spent at least a small part of his interview leaving an on-air message for his parents, informing them that he had a home ready for them and that by the end of the IIUC, he may have enough CCs to bring them to Shanghai.
When finally the interviewer reached the reluctant duo of Eunae and Kitty, both stammered a few lines about being thankful to Fudan, then clammed up, uncomfortable with such an extroverted display of egotistical self-promotion. For Eunae, Gwen suspected the girl’s participation would likely be negatively received, at least until they thrashed the Korean teams, making Eunae the sole object of worship for the nationalistic peninsular’s prideful citizens. As for Kitty, she could only presume that the ordinarily quiet girl loathed the idea of whoring herself out.
“Mayuree, Miss Maymyint, I am bringing Gwen Song! I am coming for you!”
The Ice Mage’s stalwart finish came as a pleasant surprise, and Gwen couldn’t help but give Kitty a righteous thumbs-up.
When finally the CCVC crew came full circle, the team formed behind the Dean and presented the universal symbol for cringeworthiness - extending their arms and forming a V with their fingers - before finish up at the entrance to the ISTC’s inner chamber.
The family and friends of the contestants waved one last time; then with a synchronised bow, the Fudan 2004 IIUC team was away.
Unlike the ISTC station at Singapore, Gwen’s first port of entry into Shanghai, China's Inter-City Teleportation Circles shared identitcal algorithms, likewise manufactured with matching metrics to reduce wavelength fluctuation.
Without so much as a single Eunae kneeling over to paint rainbows all over the silvery glyphs, the team arrived at Chengdu, where they would meet up with the other Chinese Team picked for Myăma.
“I’ve just received the news.” Walken joined the group as they gathered in Chengdu ISTC's lobby. “Your remaining competitors are Kyoto University and Seoul University.”
“We’re not against Tokyo?” Tei took in a breath of cold air. “Mao’s tomb— Kyoto, we’re in for a tough bout.”
The rest of the team exchanged uncertain glances.
Within China's nine leading research institutes, only three Chinese universities ranked high enough in the Asian Regional academic rankings to issue teams for the IIUC. Of the Group of Twenty in Greater Asia, Fudan barely scraped past the finishing line at 19th, Jiantong at 13th, while Tsinghua solidly locked in 2nd or 3rd place, interchanging with their rivals from Tokyo. Peking University, though ranked 4th, had little interest in competition with the old colonial powers, emphasising instead on gatekeeping the PLA's most secretive mystical arts.
“I’d say so.” Walken studied each of the team members, disdained by their dismay. “Here are your current matchups: Of your Asia qualifier group: Kyoto is ranked 1st, Seoul 9th, Jiantong 13th, and Fudan is 19th. It’s not an unusual spread, as the organisers prefer to avoid having top group match ups. When we’re on the global stage, the same dynamic will apply. For your first round, Fudan, a rank 154th university, will pair with competitors in the top hundreds, or whatever is closest, assuming any of them has made it that far.”
“Well, its no surprise we’re the underdog!” Richard butted in. “That’s how I like it! That’s how we do it in Australia!”
“That’s right.” Gwen pumped her fists. “In Australia, the underdog never loses! Fact! Nine times out of ten, a million in one shot taken by an underdog will succeed!”
Her teammates giggled nervously, evidently doubting their Vice-Captain's mathematical abilities.
Before she could continue, a thunderclap resounded across the vaulted ceiling of the ISTC station. A second team had arrived, and they were now making their way across the interior, awaiting transfer to the international terminal of the Chengdu ISTC array.
It was their old rival, Jiantong.
Senior Bai glanced at Gwen, cautioning his lieutenant before the two moved up to greet their counterparts.
Unlike the Fudan students, Jiantong has been long affiliated with the Communist Party’s Shanghai branch, with their best and brightest graduating into secretarial posts as well as military officerships inside the PLA Tower.
As one, Jiantong marched on Fudan's chaotic formation, neat in their dark navy uniforms, paired with pale blue collars and black military chinos. Unsurprisingly, the most eye-catching aspect of their team jersey was a bright red iconography depicting a hammer, anvil and sword, alongside spell-books, forming the circular logo for Jiantong, symbolising craft, knowledge and military might, each in equal measure.
Conversely, Fudan wasn’t nearly so strict on uniforms, which combined with its intake of international students, was why it was famous for its “Fudan Flowers”.
The Captain of Jiantong, Gwen noted, was a bloke with a military crop, a square jaw, and dark, hawkish eyes that gave him an intimidating disposition, like a man waiting for the perfect moment to deploy a shiv.
Behind the militant looking young man was another with the face of a schemer, scrunched and rat-like, a born villain. Just from the motes of pale mana drifting from the man’s garb, Gwen could tell he was an Illusionist and a high-tier one at that. Though not wanting to judge a book by its cover, the man's appearance had nonetheless forced her to do a double-take. Thanks to planned pairings and generations of good breeding, Mages in general, especially ones with rare abilities, were rarely uncomely. Considering the position of Gwen's team and the rest of the Jiantong team, the Illusionist's unfortunate face struck her as peculiar.
As the groups approached one another, her theory was validated by two exceedingly beautiful young women, both with their long hair tied up in knots, glaring past her at Lulan.
“Tei Bai, Captain.” Tei extended a hand.
“Gwen Song, Vice-Captain,” Gwen likewise made herself known, a little pleased that she was as tall or taller than the entirety of the Jiantong team.
“Ah, the great Tei Bai, the prodigy of the Taishan Bai Clan,” the presumed Captain of the Jiantong team had introduced himself as Xiang Ying of Wutang. “We finally meet.”
“Bai shixiong.” The Illusionist beside Ying bowed, interjecting before Bai could address the Jiantong Captain. “Pleased to meet you. I am Kurong Tsung from the Wutang main house.”
After her Captain's turn with the duo, when Gwen moved to shake the Captain’s hand, Ying instead gave her a smile and a nod, then left her hanging.
Tei was mid-bow when he caught Gwen’s awkward condition.
“Is something the matter, Bai shixiong?”
“Ying shidi, please return my Vice-Captain’s greetings,” Tei returned gruffly.
“If shixiong wishes it, it shall be done.” The Wutang Sword Mage known as Ying then turned to Gwen, extending a hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet the infamous Worm Handler.”
Shocked at having been called the titillating moniker to her face, Gwen’s cheeks flushed scarlet before Ying' calloused fingers enveloped her own. Like all Sword Mages, the caster's hand possessed the stinging grit of sandpaper.
Then, for some reason, the man squeezed her hand.
It took Gwen a moment to realise the man wasn’t trying to cop a feel but was squeezing her fingers in the crushing sense.
Bemused and in mild discomfort, Gwen winced.
Ying Xiang grinned.
Senior Bai’s expression grew dark, while the Illusionist’s grew mirthful.
The rest of the team on either side watched their leaders dance the braggadocio fandango, anticipating what was next to come.
Growing annoyed, Gwen attempted to retrieve her hand, only to find that Ying’s fingers had become a vice-grip.
“Ying shidi, you are going too far.” Tei raised a not-very-polite finger, hoping Gwen wouldn't just keep Ying's hand as a souvenir. “Don’t do it, Ying. It won’t end well.”
“Oh?” Ying Xiang’s gaze stabbed at Tei. “You know, I've heard some very scandalous things about your flower. Does it break your heart to see her hurt, Bai shixiong?”
“That’s not what Senior Bai means.” Richard, who had been observing the ordeal, snorted out loudly. “You bloody inbred Clanners, you have no idea, do you? Go on; keep it up.”
A clamour resounded from the Jiantong camp.
“Well done, you’ve just insulted my whole party. What’s your name?”
“Richard Huang.” Richard rested a hand against the small of Gwen's back so that an understanding passed between them. “Say, are you any good wielding a sword left-handed?”
“Mr Xiang,” Gwen interjected, playing along, growing misty-eyed, waiting for the man to lower his guard. “You’re hurting me.”
Suddenly, without warning, a split-second before Gwen was about to crush the man's fingers, the Sword Mage relented.
“You'd be better off charming the Fungs.” Ying Xiang met her eye to eye. “A competition such as this is no place for a soft and delicate thing such as yourself. Is living the life of a princess in Nantong not thrilling enough for you?”
As if confirming his Captain’s point, the rat-faced Illusionist also extended a hand for Gwen to shake.
Lulan, growing furious at Jiantong’s rudeness, took a step forward, only to be halted by Richard when on the other side, two young women likewise looked as though they were keen to step forward.
Gingerly, with great timidness, Gwen tended her slender white fingers and took the Illusionist’s rougher counterpart.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Worm Handler.” The Clanner known as Kurong grasped her hand as though manhandling a hock.
“Oh no, Mr Tsung.” Gwen activated her Essence, locking eyes with the Jiantong Captain. “The pleasure’s all mine.”
“AEEEEEEAA! A-ANCESTORS!” Kurong broke out into a sudden clamour, so much that the two young women behind him looked about ready to materialised their swords. “Y-YOU WHORE!”
Ying Xiang's expression hardly changed.
“You'd be better off slinking back down the sewer you birthed out of,” Gwen stated coldly, ratcheting up the pressure so that Jiantong's Vice-Captain fell to his knees, one hand caught in her vice-grip while the other futilely tried to form an Abjuration Shield. “A true competition such as this is no place for a soft and delicate stool such as yourself.”
“Oh Gwen, that’s brilliant!”
Her teammates jeered.
“Hahahaha…” To Gwen's dismay, Ying Xiang began to laugh as well, paying no heed to his screeching Vice-Captain. “I like you, Miss Song. I see your moniker is no joke. You have handled Tsung shidi expertly.”
Stepping back, the man bowed from the waist.
“Allow me to apologise. May I please have Tsung shidi back?”
With a show of generosity, Gwen returned the Illusionist to his team.
“I am going to destroy you.” Kurong didn’t find the joke nearly as hilarious as his Captain.
"I am terrified," Gwen hummed jovially. "No one has ever said that to me before. Look at my trembling hands."
She sneered at the man’s writhing, snot-covered face, wondering if it was the inbreeding talking or if the man was indeed that arrogant.
“Tsung shidi! Apologise!” Ying Xiang’s faux amicability curdled. “Do you not understand the meaning of a friendly greeting? Did Song shimei not humiliate your shameful display? How much face must you lose before you’re satisfied?”
Kurong opened his mouth to speak, but a proverbial cat in the form of Gwen’s upturned lips had caught his tongue.
“Bai shixiong.” Ying made a gesture with an open palm and a fist, then commanded his team to back away. “Let us continue this in Burma.”
“Indeed, I look forward to it.” Bai returned a bow, then directed Gwen and his party away from the Jiantong team, who retrieved their pallid Vice-Captain.
“What the hell was all that about?” Gwen inquired of Bai. “Was that guy slow in the head?”
“He must be,” Richard chuckled. “Good work, Gwen.”
“I am afraid the both of you have been used.” Tei sighed. “Still, it was a good show of force. No matter.”
“How so?” Gwen raised a brow. She had thought her comeback worthy of an Emmy.
“Ying Xiang was initially trying to bait you,” Bai explained. “If you couldn’t withstand his taunt and carelessly activated your magic, you may be in trouble with the authorities here before we even commence the match.”
“But I am not stupid enough to do that,” Gwen pointed out.
“He knows that now.” Bai nodded. “It's a test of your mettle. What followed was his real ploy. I should have stopped you, but I too was curious as to Ying’s intent.”
“Which was?” Richard and others were now gathered around their Captain, the only true Clanner among them.
“Intra-Clan Politics.” Bai lowered his voice. “All Clans have problems with succession, more so for a big sect like Wutang. Ying Xiang is a genius, a genuine prodigy, but Kurong Tsung is the favourite grandson of the current Patriarch. Just now, I suppose we just watched Ying Xiang wield the two of you against his cousin.”
“Seriously?” Gwen shook out her hand, feeling dirty. "They don't give a shit about teamwork and morale?"
“They do, but Ying is likely trying to cut off the gangrene first. They say in Wutang that the way of the sword is the way of ren - of people,” Senior Bai intoned. “To wield the sword is to wield the heart of lesser men, the blade: their want, the handle: their fear. A strike should not be so easily anticipated, yet the blade will cut precisely when needed.”
“How mystical.” Richard appeared unconvinced. “But no more substantial than what Prince’s used to spew about the distinction that awaited when serving the Four Houses.”
“Xiang shidi will prove a difficult challenge,” Bai warned his teammates. “I know you all have little sympathy for Clanners and our magic, but do not underestimate him. His is a talent that comes once in a generation.”
“Alright, Senior Bai.”
"We need your advice."
The team murmured their agreements.
“Good, let’s get to our hotel.”
Once the other’s followed Bai from the lobby, Gwen found herself waiting for their instructor, who had been watching the whole while without so much as a peep.
“Gwen.” Walken sidled beside her. “A word.”
“Eric?” Gwen fell in step beside her frenemy advisor.
“Your team needs a confidence boost.” Walken touched his forehead. “I can vouch for the fact that very few contestants will be capable of handling your unmitigated potential, almost none in Asia, so my first advice to you is to bolster your team's confidence. I don't think your Captain truly understands just how much terror you're capable of sowing. More poignantly, I don't think your opponents have a clear idea either.”
“How am I to do that?” Gwen chuckled. “Caliban ambush?”
“Oh, nothing so nefarious.” Walken eyed the Jiantong team as they sauntered away to their hotel. “I think its best to start removing obstacles and laying dominos.”
“You’re saying…” Gwen’s expression grew scandalised.
“Exactly saying that.” Walken’s lips grew cruel and calculating. “When we get to Yangon, there’s going to be a reception. The organisers are going to be there, and traditionally, the end of the dinner reception heralds duels between the various team’s Captains and Vice-Captains - all captured for broadcast entertainment, of course. When that happens…”
“If that happens-” Gwen studied the man’s gleaming eyes.
“Pick someone, anyone, and crush them. To strategise our matches to come, you need to put the fear of Gwen into them. Don’t hold back, and don’t pause for breath until your team has regained its confidence and your opponents' have turned into Christmas pudding.”