The team's modest hotel overlooked Chengdu’s CBD, its well-lit laneways a mishmash of dynastic and modern architecture. Unlike Shanghai, a young city rich with colonial facades, Chengdu had existed as a tamed Frontier since the Spring and Autumn epoch, earning the moniker of “The Country of Heaven”. Most famously, it was the seat of Liu Bei’s capital during the infamous Three Kingdoms period, a civil war that reduced China’s population from 56 Million in 150 AD to a mere 16 Million a century later, rapidly expanding the dominion of Demi-humans, spurred by a decimated Han Dynasty.
Regretfully, it wasn’t possible for the students to participate in two local specialities: the first of which was hotpot by the river, and the second being a chance to consult the esoteric Xióngmāo-Ren, a group of benign demi-humans sages, for advice on spiritual cultivation.
Pandas who were people? Pandering to Pandarens? Gwen could hardly keep her hands from itching. She had seen pandas in her old world, but picturing attired, talking pandas proved too preposterous. If she could meet one called Po, who could perform panda style, who also spoke like Jack Black, she would lose her mind.
“Perhaps on the way back?” Richard patted her shoulder while she forlornly gazed at the giant bamboos covering the southern inclines of Tiantai Shan. “It’s not like the Pandaren are going anywhere.”
"Is there such a thing as peacock-people living around here?"
"What kind of question is that?" Jiro, who had also wanted to see the Pandaren, chuckled bemusedly. Richard had told him that sometimes, Gwen spoke gibberish. This was known as 'Gwenism'.
The next day, following a final checkup of their gear, the Fudan group returned to the ISTC for their long-range Teleportation. Their waypoint would be the Kunming Frontier, routing through Pu’er, famous for its tea, then finally to Yangon.
With all preparations complete, the group stepped onto the glowing dais.
“Hold on to Eunae,” Walken advised. “I dare say Yangon's still using colonial algorithms.”
Eunae paled as Anita steadied her by the shoulder.
“Yangon — Mia,” Gwen implored the general air. “Here we come!”
As the excessive motes of Conjuration burned off, the students were left marvelling at the marbled interior of what appeared to be a Romanesque municipal building consisting of a dozen columns surrounding a central dais where the ISTC’s scripts covered the surrounding white stone.
Flanking the contestants on either side were attendants in maroon wearing silk brocade longyi, a sarong covering the lower body, paired with dark western shirts, while their faces with their caramel complexion, were white with markings made from thanaka. Among that number were also several young monks with saffron shawls draped over one shoulder, regarding the contestants with great curiosity. One of the young monks immediately ran forward with a bucket, meeting Eunae and Rene midway.
As Gwen’s eyes took in the sight of a brand new country, the third of which she would visit after her trans-dimensional displacement, her eyes fell upon her much anticipated local confidant, flanked by her brother.
There, in the middle of the two dozen or so Burmans was Mayuree in bright orange and lime, looking a treat like a citrus-pandan pudding, wearing a tube dress in brocaded silk that covered her from chin to ankle.
Gwen almost burst out in laughter at the outlandish outfit, so different from Mayuree’s usual fair in Shanghai, though she nonetheless lunged forward to embrace her friend, pressing the girl against her bosom.
“Mia! I’ve missed you so much!”
“Gwen! Me too.” Mayuree’s body relaxed as their arms enveloped one another. “It's been forever.”
“Wow, look at you.” They separated after a few seconds, with Gwen taking another look at her friend’s made up face. “You look different, somehow.”
Juxtaposed against her most recent memory, Mayuree seemed older. There was a wanness to her friend’s once carefree mien, a tightness around the lip and the eyes.
“We've got trouble back home,” Mayuree wryly smiled, averting her eyes. “But it’s a beautiful place as well. I can’t wait to show you everything.”
“That sounds wonderful!” Gwen gave her another hug before turning to her companions. "As for your troubles, that's what I am here for."
Behind her, an inch away, stood a Kitty fuming with impatience and agitation.
“Ah-” Gwen made an ‘O’ with her lips. “Sorry, go ahead.”
"Marong!" She turned to her next target.
"Gwen," Marong stood stoic as a sentinel. "Welcome to our home."
While Kitty and Mayuree caught up, Gwen introduced the rest of the team to their Diviner.
“She looks nice.” Anita grinned. “Small and cute.”
"Woa, a Smoke Mage!" Jiro whistled. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Marong."
"Likewise." Marong shook the hands of the assembly. "Is your healer going to be okay?"
Eunae appeared already wasted.
"Restoration!" The group's cleric resigned herself to shameful self-medication. "I am sorry..."
"That's alright Eunnie." Gwen patted her head. "You'll get used to it."
“Will we have time to get to know Mayuree?” Rene's attention wandered between their Diviner and the elegant decor covering the room before enquiring their advisor. Thanks to a Restoration from Eunnae, she was back on her feet.
“Of course, you’ll have a week to get used to the place, its people and culture," Walken affirmed the pallid Fire Mage's enquiry. "See the sights, get to know the locals, and most importantly, get used to the weather.”
“Great, thank you, sir.” Rene then turned to her companion. “Jiro, what do you make of that?”
“Ho.” Jiro was already looking out the window at the verdant city outside. “I think a few of us are about to enter hell.”
“The Jiantong team arrived earlier,” Marong informed Gwen and their companions as they exited the ISTC compound.
The air outside felt as though the team had passed between a portal separating the Plane of Water and the Material Realm. The humidity inside the glyph-cooled room had been at best twenty per cent, but now it was well into the eighties, instantly smothering the bare-limbed girls with a snail sheen of sweat.
“Better than I imagined.” Rene caught the air with her hands. The moisture was almost tangible. “Jiro?”
“Wet,” Jiro remarked, circulating elemental fire through his mana conduits. “I should burn off a little moisture before it gets clammy.”
“H-How is this possible?” Gwen moaned, caught between the dilemma of stripping off her long-sleeved shirt protecting her from the sun and wearing waterlogged linen. “Mia, how are you not feeling this?”
“I was born here,” Mayuree snickered at the sight of the team encountering the monsoonal weather for the first time.
“Weren’t you born in Shanghai?” Gwen watched a beat of sweat visibly forming on the back of her hand.
“I mean I belong here,” Mayuree corrected herself hurriedly. “Aren't you from Australia. Isn’t it hot there?”
“The heat there is dry!” Gwen decided a sunburn was better than whatever the hell she was experiencing now, and so stripped out of her skivvy, exposing the sports-top underneath. “Is Magus Maymaruya with us? I don’t think I can handle this. It’s only been two minutes!”
“Gwen, come under the shade,” Richard offered his cousin a moment of respite under a watery umbrella made by Lea. “I'll take care of the moisture if you stay close. The heat is going to take some getting used to.”
“Maymaruya’s looking after things in Shanghai,” Marong regretfully informed his sister's companions. “Come on; our destination is just up ahead.”
The boulevard that led from the ISTC interchange had signs beyond Gwen’s Ioun Stone’s ability to translate, with only the character of "ရန်ကုန်မြို့" being transcribed as “Yangon City”, while the rest remained undecipherable thanks to the rarity of Old Mon scriptural glyphs.
According to Mayuree, the district through which they walked is Dagon, forming the centre of Yangon city, and their destination was the centre of all activity in Yangoon - the Shwedagon Pagoda.
What they were passing now was what had been translated by Marong as “Goddess' Park,” a nature reserve built for the conservation of local avian populations as well as a riverside wind-buffer for the temple complex just behind it. Rather than taking mechanised transport, the walk allowed the students to accustom themselves to the sights of the inner city, as well as orientate their bearings.
In her old world, Gwen had visited Burma during her Contiki wanderlust days, though in the late naughties, the paranoid Military Junta had made exploration nigh-impossible for the aspiring self-guided tourist. Even so, she had seen the glory of the Shwedagon Pagoda first hand, marvelling at its golden dorms during sunset, smiling at saffron monks puffing on hand-rolled cigarettes grinning back at her outlandish, immodest attire.
In the Yangon of her present, the city was an amalgamation of British, Chinese, Indian and local influences, creating a strangely chimeric city that Gwen could only compare to the Milu.
All around them, across the park and behind them, once august sandstone buildings were overgrown with moss, ferns and mildew, many of which lay uninhabited, robbed of its succour of administrative officials and hard-working busboys running messages for their brocade-vested masters.
“The welcoming ceremony will take place here—” Mayuree proudly opened her arms as they cleared the tree line, following the contour of Theingottara Park, finally arriving at the north gate of Shwedagon Pagoda. “While the reception tonight will be at the Secretariat Building downtown at Kyauktada.”
Gwen wanted to talk some more, but Mayuree stopped the troop of gawking Chinese tourists with a wave of her hand.
“Everyone, I am going to share my Message Glyph with you. Once we enter the Shwedagon sanctum, there should be as little talking as possible, so please use Silent Message if you must converse with someone. We don’t have a Divination Tower here, so I’ll act as the foci for your devices.”
Gwen and a few of the others already possessed Mayuree’s Glyph, as for the others, it only took them few moments to ping their devices against the Diviner’s bracelet, transforming her into a localised signal tower of sorts.
When they raised their heads again, the group had cleared the guarded crossing leading toward Shwedagon Pagoda's north gate and was now beholden by its awe-inspiring visage. There, standing on either side of the entrance, towering above the students some ten odd meters, were two enormous statues of terrestrial dragons, their heads the likeness of a lion’s maw in a reptilian skull, with golden manes belonging to that of lions and marble flesh for their gargantuan bodies. Within the dark sockets of their eyes, what could only be Creature Cores burned a brilliant coral even in the daylight, suffusing the statues with life, warning worshippers and intruders alike that should they misbehave, the Chinthe guardians of the pagoda would assist in their reincarnation.
“Ladies and Gentlemen from Fudan,” Mayuree’s voice resounded within their heads once the connections were complete. She turned toward them with her brother and their array of servants fanned on either side, then made a polite curtsey, kneeling by twisting her body to one side. “Welcome to my humble country. Welcome to Myăma."
Lead by their Captain, the rest of the team bowed.
"No shoes," Marong informed them after the formalised exchange.
"No socks either," Magister Walken advised, evidently an experienced traveller. "Keep them in your Storage Rings, and keep audible chatter to a minimum."
With lowered heads and a humbler posture, the group moved between the two guardians, bound by supernatural forces that had shielded the pagoda against all offenders.
Once inside, they became surrounded by throngs of saffron-clad monks lining either side, making way for the travellers from afar. When Gwen smiled at the monks, they grinned back as they had done in the past, revealing betel nut stained teeth stained by years of religious tea drinking.
The maroon-gold interior continued for several hundred meters, florid with inscriptions and murals in sandstone inlaid with pearl and ivory, dotted here and there with precious jewels and Creature Cores. In the distance, as though the group were nearing enlightenment, the marble-plated courtyard awaited.
When Gwen questioned Mayuree as to the story contained within the sculptural relief, her Diviner directed her Message to a young monk who had accompanied alongside the team.
In the next moment, his voice filled their minds.
“To answer your question, Lady Song— the murals, they mark the travails of Gautama Buddha as told in the Pāli canon. Through its erudition, our people observe the Way of the Elder, by reciting the Tipitaka via hymn, learning the Dhamma, remembering the taming of the land by he who journeyed from the west unto our holy land. It is here that Gautama met with the Kings of the Mon and the Pyu, the wisest and earliest men of Myăma. If you look to your right—”
The students caught a glimpse of what had to be a dragon, or a dragon-like being, kneeling on its forepaws toward a man with a golden halo surrounding his head.
“— you shall see the taming of the Naga Goddesses as Lord Buddha's disciples. After Lord Gautama taught them, they aided the Kings of Mon and Pyu to make peace with the Min Mahagiri, the land gods.”
Gwen’s eyes followed the mural, finding another image in which eight mighty Nagas, each with the face of beautiful women and the body of draconic-creatures, were pulling apart what appeared to be a western-looking dragon.
“That doesn’t seem like a very peaceful negotiation,” she remarked.
“Ah—, the Asura reneged on their promise,” the monk continued, not missing a beat, his voice flowing like a gentle stream. “It was greedy for the treasures which the Kings of Mon and Pyu had prepared in praise of Gautama Buddha’s visitation. You see, the Min Mahagiri was immortal and could not be slain, so each of Gautama’s Naga allies took a piece of the land god within them to ensure that it would be stricken from the Eightfold Path, denied from the circle of reincarnation.”
“Goodness,” Gwen struck out her tongue. Now she knew how to deal with the Yinglong. All they had to do was get eight Towers to curb stomp the thing - then each city could imprison a chunk of the Yinglong with mystical magic. So long as their converted 5th-century magic held out, the subjugation should be no sweat at all. It was little wonder the CCP was so thrilled at Ayxin's interest in Jun.
“Honoured guests, we are almost at the exit—” the young monk hummed melodically. “The path on which we now enter is the Pilgrim’s Path, once you exit the Chinthe’s maw, please follow the dragon’s spine in a clockwise direction. You will be gifted wildflowers and prayer flags, as you proceed, please dispense them into the offering alcoves.”
In the next minute, the students burst into the light.
By design, their eyes took time to adjust to the vivid brightness, slowly perceiving the single most dazzling construct they had ever seen.
Above them, a golden wonder of celestial brilliance, the Shwedagon Zedi Daw glowed, a conical masterpiece piercing the heavens. Its arches and bellies and bells polished to a mirror sheen by pious artisans, refracting the light in such a way that their entire vicinity appeared cast in permanent benediction.
“Please step to the right.”
Gwen and the others distinctly felt as though they had walked into the realm of a waking dream.
Stupas, hundreds of intricately wrought stupas, dotted every inch of Singuttara Hill, each held a little bodhisattva within, some with many arms, others with multiple heads. A few held weapons, while many sat atop magical creatures.
Dragons and Nagas… Gwen mouthed to herself as they passed these spectacles of gold, ivory and other unnamable precious metals. Almost everything here had to do with subjugating, taming, and in a tantric manner of speaking, "mingling" with draconic-beings.
Feeling the ice-cold marble underfoot dispel all heat, they arrived at the first spectacle.
“First, is the house of Lord Kakusandha, the Buddha of the present Kalpa. Please offer your charity with generosity and an open heart…” the young monk sang, moving on without so much as a glance at the visitors. “But do not tarry, come. There is a long way to go.”
It took Gwen several seconds to realise that the pool below the buddha’s lily overflowed with mana crystals of all colours. Caught by the reverence of the place and its sanctifying aura, she allowed a fistful of HDMs, almost twenty shards in total, to add to the pool.
With great dismay, her teammates followed suit.
“Gwen,” Richard tapped her shoulder as they made for the second statue. “A little too generous. Lulan was biting her lip so hard she had to receive a Healing Word from Eunae.”
“Oh?” Gwen flashed the others an apologetic smile before continuing.
“So generous, Gwennie,” Mayuree voice came through from the front. “But you could afford to be generous.”
“I don’t see you or Marong dropping crystals,” Gwen chided her friend.
“Ha.” Mayuree skipped ahead.
"All proceeds go to expanding the complex," Marong explained patiently, his voice possessing a rare reverence. "You'll soon see where it all goes."
Another quadrant later, the party arrived at their second stop.
“Here we have the house of Lord Koṇāgamana,” the monk continued. “As before, please let your charity speak for itself.”
This time, Gwen allowed five HDMs to drop, letting her companions breathe.
After the southern Buddha, they came to the third Buddha, Kassapa, then finally, they were back where they began, at the perpendicular of which lay the Buddha of origin, Lord Gautama.
Unlike the other statues with bodies of gold, Gautama’s androgynous form consisted of white jade so rich in appearance that it was without a single speck or blemish. Upon its crown, adorning the space above its head, was a band of silvery metal Gwen recognised as mithril.
“Pure Mithril!” It was Eunae who blurted out the imperial term for the precious metal. “Wow!”
“Just how rich is your country?” Gwen marvelled at the size of the intricately wrought crown. She had heard of the rare mithril variant from her Opa when he was casting Magical Items. If mithril was the rarest variant of silver, prized by humans and Demi-humans alike, then Pure Mithril was as sterling mithril to common silver, used to inscribe strategic arrays like Interstate Teleportation arrays, capable of capacitating almost unlimited volumes of mana.
“We’re a wealthy country,” Mayuree exhaled. “Yet we’re poor, thanks to the Tyrant.”
The others nodded sagely. Gwen had already informed them of the problems facing Mayuree’s country. Curiously, Gwen was reminded of Maymyint's gift of a Storage Ring. What had Mia's sister meant when she said to open it when the time was ripe?
Another round of clinking crystals followed, then finally, Fudan’s troop arrived in front of the golden stupa.
Dropping to his knees, the young monk, as well as the rest of their entourage, dipped their heads against the pavement, leaving the guests to stand awkwardly.
“Don’t mind it,” Marong informed his sister's companions. “Prayers given from those without faith have less weight than that of a feather.”
"I never took you for the religious kind." Gwen cocked her head, noting that Marong had remained stationary while his sister offered a prayer.
"But doesn't this place just fill you with joy?" Mayuree gazed at the golden stupa, picking herself from the floor.
"I suppose it does," Gwen acknowledged her friend's worshipful gaze. With so much gold, her knees felt weak.
After the saffron-robed monks straightened out their burgundy attires, they once again assumed their places beside the guests.
“We are about to enter the great stupa, where you will receive benediction from the reliquary. Here entombed are eight strands of Gautama’s hair, worshipped by the descends of the Mon and the Pyu, each the weight of a mountain.”
Their monk guide then formed the team into two lines.
In pairs, they entered the temple.
And what a temple it was!
Jade, gold, mithril, platinum and innumerable volumes of other precious jewels adorned every conceivable surface. From the floor to the wall to the ceiling, every inch of the place was carved and papered over with gold leaf, polished and maintained by some unknown ancient enchantment so that the light from a single candle was enough to illuminate the hall in its entirety. Considering the state of the mirrored floors, every step felt like defilement, filling the contestants with shame and self-loathing.
Was all the treasure of the world contained here in this place? Gwen couldn’t help but feel a tingle in her capitalist soul, beckoning the colonial blood of her Opa’s Indo-Dutch ancestors. Just how many tons of gold was here? Just how many jewels, how many Creature Cores, how many ingots of mithril had gone into a place such as this?
If she was a dragon - how could she resist?
How could a creature born from avaricious appetite endure even for a moment, the idea that he or she wasn’t the master and possessor of what is probably the single most extensive curation of precious metals in South-East Asia?
Inside, the stupa split into four quadrants, each held up by two pillars of sculpted jade, forming an octagramic mandala consisting of strange Glyphs and tantric patterns that did not exist in modern Spellcraft. Coiled upon each of these pillars were sculptural forms of Naga guardians, the eight divine beings which Gautama took as disciples, each morphically half-cobra, half human, some male, some female, and some possessing features of both genders.
Once the spectacle of the temple's interior wore off, the students finally noted that they were not the only ones who had arrived.
To their right adjacent quadrant were their old rivals from Jiantong, with their Captain standing like a Taoshi while the rest of the team sat in kneeling meditation.
Toward their left adjacent quadrant stood a group of young men in prim navy uniforms, followed by two demure women trailing at the group’s end. Compared to Fudan’s rag-tag of casually dressed Mages, these young men and women from Seoul carried themselves impeccably, without a single strand of hair out of place. Their uniforms, a two-tone charcoal-navy blazer and silver-brocade tie, spoke of a nation that valued perfection in all things, from flawless complexions to trousers without a single wrinkle.
Finally, just out of view, the Fudan Mages caught sight of an assemblage of oddly dressed young men and women in ceremonial outfits. Leading the group was a girl in what Gwen could arguably discern as a Miko’s outfit, with its white haori and red hakama, wearing a thin golden crown. Behind the leading Miko were men wearing the ivory linen of the Shugenja, indicating that they were esoteric followers of Onmyōdō, the Path of Yin and Yang. Having heard and seen these attires during culture tours in her old world, she could only imagine what kind of real-world magic these practitioners could bring to bear against Fudan.
“ALL-ARE-ARRIVED!” the young monk who had accompanied them cried out.
Three strikes heralded the beginning of the ceremony of benediction.
Upon an elevated dais open for all to see, young monks opened the shawls of an elaborate palanquin, revealing the figure of an ageless, androgynous seated figure in the lotus stance with a golden shawl draped across one shoulder. Below, an enormous lotus-flower bore the visage aloft, its pink-white petals glistening as though dripping with freshly collated dew.
Gwen’s eyes widened, her Almudj’s Essence thrummed with pleasure, humming in resonance with whatever force that now emanated from within the palanquin.
It's a statue! It took her a moment to realise this was a life-like carving in jade so rich it had the consistency of porcelain flesh.
As one, the Monks began their chant, reciting the tale of Gautama’s instruction of the Naga and his taming of Min Mahagiri, the great Lord of the Mountain.
A fourth gong rang out; then from the stupa’s centre, a gentle light befell those held within its interior, infusing them with its blessing, banishing all fatigue, all disease, and for the moment, all desire.