“The three of us?” Sung Lee’s surprise was enough to misplace his building anger. “Against you?”
“Against me— and Eunae.” Gwen reached behind her and took her Cleric by the hand. “If you’re not sure, I’ll let you add one more member.”
“Gwen!” Eunae squeezed Gwen’s hand back, her dainty little palms sweating buckets. “I can’t!”
“Don’t you worry about a thing,” Gwen assured her healer, her tenderness matched only by her surety. How like her old self Eunae now behaved, not daring to breathe or Achoo when the stakes were up. “Remember our training. Just keep me topped up.”
“But my appa…”
Gwen turned her delicate profile toward the Lees.
“Tell me, Lee & Lee.” she no longer felt the desire to play their game of honorific bingo. “Will you punish Eunae’s family if I beat you black and blue and break you in front of ten million spectators?”
Her audacity was such that both of the Lees appeared lost for words.
“Proctor von Schlabrendorff!” her voice rang out, magnified by Clarion Call so that it echoed across the courtyard. “I require a pressing consultation!”
While they waited for the proctor to arrive, the impromptu fruit salad of the Lee Clan had been recovered by one of his female team members.
“Idiot! What took you so long?!” the young man spat at the woman. “Take care of this now!”
“At once, Seonbae-nim.” The girl obediently picked a piece of orange from the man’s vest. “Cleansing! Prestidigitation!”
A splash of water cleaned the young man’s face and torso as he fumed, glaring dangerously at Gwen, and Eunae, after which a blast of air dried him out. Evidently, the last Lee was an Air Evoker.
“Out of the way!” He pushed the girl away with impatience, then tried to stand, only to find himself once again on the floor, still concussed from Gwen’s humiliating blow. “Ssi-bal-nyeon! You’ll regret this. I am going to kill you.”
“Where have I heard that before?” Gwen rolled her eyes expertly at the Korean variation of cunt. She then turned toward the crowd, spotting the horse-faced Illusionist from Jiantong. “Senior Ying! I am going to do you a favour.”
“Ho? What’s this?” Ying Xiang made himself known by stepping forward. He had enjoyed the bitch-slap very much.
“Throw your Vice-Captain in. I’ll take care of them as a package deal. If you recall, he also wanted to have a go.”
Ying Xiang cocked his head toward Kurou, his Vice-Captain.
Then to the Illusionist's abject horror, the Jiantong Captain pointed a rudely erect finger toward him so that the entire assembly could see.
“Shidi, we all heard what you said to Miss Song in Chengdu. So let’s not waste this opportunity. Join the Seoul-party and take her out of the competition, I am counting on you.”
The Kurou's face instantly grew scarlet.
“Xiang shixiong, what are you saying?” the Illusionist spluttered. “A Wutang Kenshi cannot gang up on a girl with the bangzi.”
“No, you should join us,” the Korean Ice Mage, Lee Si-won, answered Kurou in Ying’s stead. “We’ll be sure to take care of you.”
“ALRIGHT. Cool your Sigils!”
The greying visage of Magister Lutz von Schlabrendorff made his appearance.
“Sir!” The students bowed, saluted, stood to attention and curtsied.
“What’s the matter here?” The Magister had seen it all, but it was his job to ensure that the young bucks left the competition in one piece. “I haven’t even given out the quest, and you’re already on each other’s throats. I understand the weather here’s hot, but the duelling segment of the evening isn’t for another hour.”
“Esteemed Sir,” Gwen cut in before either of the Lees could speak. “The Korean team has just threatened one of the members of my team, declaring that they will seek retribution against her family in Seoul should she aid me in any fair capacity.”
“That’s a lie!” Lee Si-won snapped, suddenly discerning Gwen’s game. “Magister, we said no such thing, this girl is a bag of scorpions.”
“Miss Song, your response?” The Magister knew her by name and appearance.
“The truth speaks louder than lies.” Gwen shook her head. She then marched into the centre of the circle which had opened up to accommodate the feud. Opening her slender white arms, she faced the crowd, allowed a controlled trickle of Essence to flow outside her body, then addressed her audience like a ringmaster. “Who among you dares to stand up for the downtrodden? Speak up for the oppressed? If you are true Mages, righteous Kenshi, make your voice heard!”
“As a neutral party.” Ying Xiang took a step forward, his eyes twinkling with mirth. “She asked them for a duel, asking if they would punish Miss Lee’s father. Mister Lee’s response was to leer rudely.”
“This is true!” Richard stepped forward. “I too witnessed a most audacious expression of arrogance. Even in silence, the dishonourable cur was threatening the family of my shivering teammate! Just look at her!”
“I saw what I saw.” Ichiro smirked at the Lees, happy to get a knife in.
Eunae looked as though she could faint.
“Magister!” Gwen turned back toward the Chief Proctor. “Is this what the IIUC has become? A game of nepotism and coercion? For shame!”
“Fudan, tone down your melodrama.” Magister von Schlabrendorff gave her an officious warning. “You are decades too young to goad me, Fräulein.”
“But sir.” Gwen dipped her head attractively, wringing her hands. “How may I teach these young men a lesson of respect and humility if they threaten my healer? I am but a humble peasant in Shanghai, what if they menace my dear old grandparents next?”
The audience blinked. Gwen Song, a dual-element sorceress with a Kirin, a peasant? If so, what were they? Cabbage?
The Magister sighed.
“Mister Lee,” the Chief Proctor began. “Can I have your word that nothing will come of this, whatever the result?”
“Sir!” Si-won’s expression grew dark. “The girl—”
“You may retort or retaliate in any capacity befitting a Path of Spellcraft.” Schlabrendorff furrowed his brows, evidently growing impatient. “Speak through craft, Mister Lee, not through politics, and certainly not through me! I know something of your nation, and I know the power your families wield. Do not take my old age for senility! If I should find out that actions have been taken against the family of that young lady over there, during or after the competition, I will strip Seoul U of its title even if you are crowned the victor! Do you comprehend the gravitas of your offence? That is a THREAT.”
“Si-won! Shut up!” Sung’s voice came across as a bark, silencing his spluttering brother. “The Magister is correct. We have fallen into Gwen Hubae’s trap. Let us speak through skill and craft. All else, to take the Magister’s words: is sophistry.”
“The two of us?” Si-won fumed.
“I would much prefer the three of you, plus that pervert over there.” Gwen pointed to Kurou. “He tried to cop a feel when I shook his hand, then started bawling that he would maim me when I caught him out.”
“I did not!” Kurou howled, his face flashing shades of white and red. “You lying biaozi!”
Ying struggled for his next breath.
“There it is.” Gwen shrugged casually. “So, you young gents game for a sixsome?”
The Lees’ regarded one another.
“We will accept, but without the help of the deviant.” Now that a fight was imminent, Sung’s face lost its ire. Instead, a strange calm returned to his voice. With violence imminent, the young man was now in his element. “You and Eunae will duel me, Si-won and Jung-min. First to Shield-Break, Oxford style.”
Gwen had since learned from Senior Bai that in international duels, there were two norms. Oxford style implied that contestants entered the duelling arena without pre-buffs or conjured creatures. Conversely, the Harvard format, pioneered by the Americans, meant one began combat with a pre-allotment of buffs on either side, accompanied by having Familiars summoned and raring to go.
“I am not a pervert!” Kurou spat. “You, Lee Bangzi! I challenge you to a duel!”
“Agreed.” Gwen nodded curtly, ignoring the sexual-deviant. “Magister, will you preside? I am afraid I won’t be able to hold back.”
“Your confidence astounds me.” The Chief Proctor raised both brows. “But you have also piqued my curiosity. Very well, Miss Song. I shall personally adjudicate for this match.”
The Magister then turned to all of them. “I must also remind you that as Yangon is lacking a Tower, your short and medium-range Contingency Teleportation Rings will have limited operability. Likewise, should your ER Contingency Rings return you to Seoul or Shanghai, you will be disqualified from the IIUC.”
Without so much as a wrinkle of the brow, the Captain of Seoul U removed a ring from his finger.
“I would imagine you’d have this much conviction at least, Gwen-ssi.”
Gwen likewise invoked an incantation, knowable only to the attuned owner, then removed Gunther’s Contingency ring. Just as a precaution, she patted her Ghosting Amulet.
“To the death, then?” She smirked at her fellow competitors.
“To Shield-Break!” Magister von Schlabrendorff spluttered, growling at the girl. “You hotheads are really stuffing my snout! Get to it! I’ve still got dinner to finish.”
The crowd parted, forming an open lane to the duelling arena, at the ends of which four advisors awaited.
“Kurou, stop acting the eyesore and get back here!” Ying barked at his devastated cousin. “Congratulations, even without Uncle Cao holding your hand, you survived.”
The Jiantong Vice-Captain looked as though he could have duelled his Captain then and there, but another member of the team pulled him back into the crowd.
“Gwen!” Ying Xiang formed a martial greeting with his hand and fist as the sorceress passed Jiantong’s assembly. “May you have fair winds on your journey forth.”
Gwen nodded, then returned to comforting Eunae, who clutched her arm with such vigour as to deform her supple flesh.
“I don’t know if I can do this, Gwen,” Eunae keened. “That’s my cousin; he’s the son of Uncle Lee!”
Gwen pulled the girl up so tightly that their faces had an inch between them.
“Eunnie, when that other bloke called you a crafty cunt, you stood up for yourself. GOOD JOB. That’s how it is in this world. You can’t keep retreating, because that’s an invitation for brutes like them to goose-step all over your face. They might not be bad people deep down, but living a privileged life has gone to their heads. It’s a disease, Eunnie, and you and I are the cure.”
Eunae understood the logic, but decades of ingrained fear and loathing couldn’t be removed simply because of spectacular words. Concurrently, Gwen’s speech was audible enough that many of the audience members bore complex expressions, caught between mockery for the Seoul team and the hypocrisy of their privileged existences.
“You’ll see, Eunnie,” Gwen assured her companion, thinking of Gunther, acknowledging that only with action could the naive be taught wisdom. “Clear your head. We’re going with Formation C.”
At the end of the human corridor, her team awaited, each offering a word of advice.
“Be careful.” Lulan and Richard had full confidence in their Vice-Captain.
“Kick their ass!” Anita made a face at what she perceived to be impeccably-dressed corncobs. “How dare that bastard touch Eunae, I could have strangled him myself!”
“Gwen, good luck!” The others patted her and Eunae on the back.
“Don’t overextend yourself,” Tei remarked worriedly. “This isn’t the final match.”
“She’ll be right, mate,” Gwen smirked. “We’ll share a bottle of Mao-tai after. I have got a feeling I’ll be thirsty indeed.”
Maymyint withdrew her mental tendrils from her sister’s addled head as to focus on the new drama stirred by her unpredictable saviour.
From the fact that Gwen Song was willing to strike a Lee from Yooksung Conglomerate for a second-rate healer from an inferior branch of the clan, her confidence only grew. Marong was right; the Lightning Sorceress was a creature of great passion and deep sentiment, a born leader in a time of crisis, but also unsuitable for hard-hearted ruling, especially when men possessed the appetites of beasts.
Still, to combat three of the Lees: two siblings from the main House and a cousin, aided by nought but a healer? That would be a sight to see! If such a Mage could exist, maybe Mayuree’s vision may not be so far off from the truth.
“My lord,” she opened a silent channel. “They are about to begin.”
“Silit,” came the reply, its voice filling every nook and cranny of her skull. “Majak ve dout saurivic.”
In the next moment, Maymyint’s world grew dim as a transcendent force suffused her body, shoving aside her feeble, humanoid consciousness with the carelessness of a stampede of Aurochs crushing the tender grass underfoot. Even as her anima shuddered with unspeakable agony, Maymyint cared not for the abuse. Her body brimmed with borrowed divinity, and there was no greater ecstasy.
“To Shield Break.” Magister von Schlabrendorff reiterated bleakly while the crowd below bellowed in wonder at the sight of a sorceress and her diminutive healer standing on one side while three men, each possessing the bearing of seasoned Combat Mages, spread out on the opposing field.
Below the Force Barriers set up for the occasion, a crew of lumen-recorders took up their spaces around the arena, ready to transmute the spectacle for future viewing.
Far above, the Magister’s tier 7 Divination magic, The Eye of Providence, enveloped the entirety of the Secretariat within his command, relaying its sights and visions into a secondary enchantment, Eidetic Memory, likewise tied to his fellow proctors.
Below, the dark-haired contestants readied themselves.
When Lutz von Schlabrendorff cycled into the Asian Pacific Region, he had known it would be a thankless task. The reason for the complication of an already complicated network of competitive academic institutions was hostile history: such as the fact that China ratified the UN mutual defence treaty to challenge Japanese holdings in 1945, Japan after deserting its Sino ambitions in 1953, and Korea after immense opposition from the Japanese in 1991. For five decades, from micro-conflicts to macro-regional disputes, hatred stemming from the Sino War had been maintained to keep a burgeoning population gratified.
To think that an hour ago, he had given a speech on the urgency of camaraderie, companionship and cooperation, and before dessert, the youngsters were already at each other’s throats.
Chief Proctor Lutz von Schlabrendorff wasn’t happy at all.
“You may begin in Three—”
A spark of mana erupted mid-field.
Even knowing his protégée’s plan, Walken’s heart simmered at his throat.
In the opening seconds of the duel, a Shield of Faith, combined with a Spirit Guardian conjured from Eunae’s Familiar, readied itself to intercept the first wave of Seoul U’s assault while Gwen began her invocation.
His ward had chosen her targets expertly despite their incomplete intelligence, as all three Lee Clan Evokers' first instinct was to burn down the upstart, thereby preserving their reputations.
Sung Lee unleashed a twin-headed, persistent Flame Hydra, a powerful eruption of Magma which continued to track and attack his targets, setting up his subsequent assaults.
Si-Won, the Ice Mage, instantly and expertly evoked a Missile Swarm, forming a prehensile cloud of icy daggers, hundreds of them, that would relentlessly pummel their target.
Jung-min, the youngest and the team’s controller, burst open the space surrounding Gwen with a Sonic Thrust, forcing her to move away from Eunae.
Together, the Lees employed one instantaneous disruptor, one mid-range, mid-strength AoE, and a heavy-handed finisher, demonstrating the Clan’s expertise and experience.
If the girl were a lesser Mage, her only choice would be to Teleport away, setting her assailants up for a second discharge. Should the Lees’ further coordinate their attacks, she would tire out, at which point she would teleport outside of the duelling area and admit her loss, or take the hit and hope she survived.
But Walken felt an aching exaltation as Caliban emerged in its stag form, exploding from thin-air as though a cascade of dark ink had poured into the arena, filling the confined space with the gut-churning miasma unique to the Void.
Oily and covered in a film of dripping Void-matter, the creature caught the brunt of the sonic blast without so much as a wrinkle on its faceless mien, even as a chunk of its torso blew out with a violent Chonk!
Tilting forward on its stiletto legs, Caliban flew into a deadbolt, catching a portion of the Missile Swarm, losing the better half of its faceless mien.
Relentless, it hammered on, striking sparks on the shielded floor, skittering toward the three astonished Mages without breaking its stride.
Mid-way, it encountered the magma hydra; it’s multi-pointed stag horns erupted into sixteen prehensile tendrils, each a slithering length of lamprey penetrating the body of the twin-headed ophidian. When furthermore Sung’s magnificent two-stage spell exploded across Caliban’s body, ripping out chunks of flesh and gouging holes the size of Gwen’s torso, it leaned forward—
And re-birthed into a skittering spider-demon half the size, fully healed, Hasted and twice as angry.
“Si-Won!” the leading Lee called out, himself erecting a Magma Arc, an offence-defence spell that shielded his team while also exploding outward in a terrific arc of flaming lava.
“Glacial Geyser!” A burst of ice, instantaneously forming underneath Caliban and with a minimal margin of error, caught the spiderling in the rear, preventing it from coming closer.
“Hurricane Blast!” The third Lee remained on Gwen, attempting to banish the Void Sorceress to open up Eunae for a thorough thrashing.
As a chilling draft of cyclonic air descended upon the female duo, Walken tasted a sharp tartness of nervous bile. He found himself clenching his fists when Luyi, leaping in between the Evocation manifest and the girls, made a barely audible ‘Eep!’ before the Air Mage’s superior firepower dashed the Guardian Spirit to smithereens. In the next split-second, the remaining impact descended, catching Eunae’s Shield of Faith, painting the semi-dome a stark white as its mana compressed and the barrier strained.
Walken found himself clenching his teeth.
Four seconds! His mind screamed. Just four more seconds!
On the far side, Caliban escaped once again, this time slipping from the icy prison as an enormous centipede, its carapace slick and obsidian. Unfazed, Sung Lee retaliated with a Magma Breath, stopping Caliban in its tracks, sheering away a dozen legs with a chunk of lava-encrusted shale. Beside him, matching his brother spell by spell, a Creeping Ice ripped through Caliban’s torso, snapping its lower body clean off.
With a wiggle, Caliban fell to the floor and lay still.
The crowd gasped for air, not yet recovered from the horrid sight of the sable-coated nightmare invading their shuddering souls.
NOW! Walken had to stop himself lest he gave away Gwen’s game.
Quietly and without warning, at the precise moment in which Caliban met a grisly, temporary end, Ariel materialised above the Lees, crackling with emerald lightning, its horns charged with Almudj’s punishing fury.
“CHAIN LIGHTING!” Walken found himself mouthing the words.
“Barbanginy!” Gwen’s voice reverberated from within the duelling arena.
The Magister’s mind burst into brilliant happiness as the Lightning Bolt connected first with Sung Lee, striking the man’s hastily erected Shield.
Then, as if on cue, it zig-zagged across the field to strike Si-Won, who was forced to put up an Ice Barrier.
Before the lightning could plough through the Ice Mage’s protection and trigger his Shield, it travelled onwards toward Jung-min, blowing past his protection in a single strike.
“Shield-Bre—!” the command from Magister Schlabrendorff exploded across the assembly, but Gwen’s Chain Lightning wasn’t yet finished.
It shot upwards and struck her Kirin in full.
Walken’s lips curled, his heart galloped, his blood kindled; he finally understood why Kilroy took so much joy in showing off his Apprentices.
From Ariel, a new bolt descended.
“Ha-ha!” Walken wondered if he looked like a maniac about now, but he couldn’t give two shits. Gwen’s Chain Lightning was a skill he had taught. It was uniquely his, and now it was going to be seen around the world, magnified a million times in every institution across Asia, Europe and the Americas.
The second bolt was weaker, but Gwen’s Essence-infused Barbanginy was tens of magnitudes stronger than mortal lightning.
A split second later, the bolt struck Sung Lee, splitting his Magma encrusted Shield in twain, revealing a disbelieving face.
Si-Won’s Ice Shield was insufficient to withstand the returning bolt. With a singular sound of shattering ice, a split arc from the viridian surge licked the Ice Mage, blasting him off his feet with a clattering of teeth.
“—eak!” Magister von Schlabrendorff hadn’t even finished his first announcement.
The bolt persisted, seeking out the final member of Lee’s team for another round of electro-vivification.
Oh, Gods! Walken felt his heart skip. She better not be thinking of killing a Lee. If there was one group that took a blood debt with absolute gravity, it was the profoundly tribal Korean Chaebols. Gwen could kiss her peace goodbye if the boy were to be summarily executed in the middle of a duel before the IIUC had even begun. Any hope that a second Shield could be erected was non-existent; between the sundering of his first and the return of the bolt, no more than a second had passed. Even an Abjurer would need a breather before refreshing a buffer.
“Sung Hyung!” Jung-Min’s voice called out as the bolt struck, lighting the man like a candle.
While the crowd watched with open mouths at the first casualty of the IIUC, the bolt returned to Ariel.
From which a third cycle engendered.
“Shield Break! Shield BREAK!” the Magister howled. “GWEN SONG! STOP THIS DUEL AT ONCE!”
With a glance from its Master, Ariel fizzled the circulating Chain Lightning, reminding the assembly that Gwen retained complete control.
Together with Walken, the assembly’s eyes first caught the illustrious form of the prowling Kirin swishing its tail. Then of the smouldering trio, of which only Seoul U’s Captain, Sung Lee, remained ruffled but otherwise unmolested.
Caliban, once again reborn, slithered from the mangled corpse of its former self, back to its regular size and original shape, ready for probing.
“Shaa! Shaa!” It hissed at the Seoul U’s Captain, who looked around dazed, as though he had entered a strange new metaphysical world, one in which a girl from Fudan had cracked his Shield, then turned his gaze to Gwen.
Finally, Walken’s swelling eyes landed on his student.
Eunae huffed, a hand placed against Gwen’s back, Luyi feebly lingering by the Cleric’s side.
As for the architect of the spectacle that now befell the lords and ladies of Myăma, she stood quivering, drenched from head to toe in perspiration, her complexion was the colour of lily buds, pale with shades of bruised blue.
Slowly, with great care, she withdrew her arms, locked in place for quick-casting, then packed her white legs so that she appeared dignified. With chest heaving and eyes wild, she reached over with a hand to take her healer by the shoulder, then planted a kiss on Eunae’s forehead.
Walken’s heart soared and soared until it strained as though a viol played to the highest pitch. At this moment, in his eyes, there was no greater sense of pride. She was his muse.
“Eunae,” she uttered audibly.
Walken found himself walking down the advisor’s dais toward the exit of the duelling platform, at which point his ward’s sweet voice dispelled the charm that had enthralled her beholden audience.
The girl was a natural.
“Muster up another jolt, Eunae—” Gwen managed. “Go heal your cousins.”
Sung Lee wanted to hurl a Dragon Breath when Eunae, the cousin he had half a mind to remove from the Clan’s roster permanently, offered to heal her kin.
But when she approached, eyes wide with fear, he found that he could not speak.
Earlier, when Jung-min had called for his help, he couldn’t do a thing, so what right did he have to deny his junior’s mercy?
“Sung Seonbae-nim…” Eunae’s gentle bosoms rose and fell as she lowered her head.
Slowly, he reached out and touched her head, feeling her soft hair between his fingers.
“Eunae,” he croaked finally, finding a measure of strength returning to his jaws. “Tell Gwen-ssi, that we’ll do our best in the competition, and that I won’t underestimate her again.”
“Yes, Seonbae-nim.” Eunnae bowed deeply.
Sung Lee swallowed, finding his throat swollen when the words reached his mouth.
“Nothing.” He cleared his throat. “Go now. Heal Jung-min.”
Gwen was glad the applause went on for so long because she was firmly stuck in place until her Essence restored her Void-ravaged body.
When was the last time she felt this? She wondered. Her joints were sore, her vitality exhausted, her head swam, and her vision hovered.
The abuse of Caliban’s shapeshifting ability to instantly restore its form was a strategy she had actualised after a great deal of experimentation with Walken, aided by Magus Kumiko. It was something that could only be used in the presence of a Cleric, and now she had traded the secret away to catalyse their strategy, which was to put the fear of Gwen into Kyoto, Seoul and Jiantong.
Gwen sucked in a breath of cold air. A raging headache, another aftermath of overtaxing one’s vitality, was now pounding her brain into mochi.
When finally Eunae returned from healing her cousins, thus ensuring that there was no possible way they could target her family without shaming the clan, some semblance of movement returned to her limbs.
Glancing above, she caught the Chief Proctor regarding her with a complicated expression before nodding amiably.
Then, aided by her Cleric, she made for the exit.
When she almost faltered at the platform, it wasn’t Richard who caught her slipping body, nor Lulan nor the others, not even Lea or Captain Bai.
To her and her companions’ amazement, it was Walken, his taut face pink as a pippin, who barged through her friends, crashed through the crowd, then caught her with his wiry hands.
“Eric?” She found herself held by the old man's arms.
“You almost burst my heart, Gwen.” Walken crushed her against his chest, so hard that she could feel the ribs beneath his tunic. “Well done!”
Far from the duelling platform, Maymyint discretely wiped a blood-tinged tear from her eyes with a maroon handkerchief.
The appeasement of her master made Maymyint happier than even that old codger, Eric Walken, who even now was coddling his ward.
“I will have her delivered to Kachin right away, my Lord,” she promised.
“Tepoha sanipkur, let them play their mortal games,” the voice echoed within her mind, switching to human speech to reduce the burden on her feverish brain. In the next moment, her lord’s slow chuckling grew into a bone-thrumming roar of merriment. “Make the arrangements. If and when the bastard meets my darling niece, I want them both frothing and seething.”