Lulan exchanged swings with the girls from Emei, inspired by Gwen to go for a two-on-one.
Risking a shallow wound to trade blow for blow, she allowed one of the Hsu sisters, Vicky, to gash her thigh with a mana-charged thrust, thereby overextending her reach.
"Heart Seeking Sword!"
The slab of iron that suddenly emerged was enough to send the girl flying, scattering a vivid crimson arc across the invisible barrier. Above, the adjudicator did not call for a halt, as Sword Mages, unlike Western casters, usually forwent Shields for Transmutation-focused defence such Lulan's Iron Heart, or the Falling Feather technique employed by the Emei sisters, negating blows and blasts through the application of Taoist mysticism.
Lulan landed without so much as a grimace, her Iron Heart technique instantly closing her flesh wound.
Vicky Hsu, conversely, didn't fare so well. Coughing up a mouthful of bile and blood, she had to be aided by her sister.
"Thank you for the instruction, Lulan shimei."
"Hsu shijie, the same," Lulan returned, stowing her iron-slab back into the Elemental Plane of Earth.
The crowd clapped and cheered, though their heart wasn't in it.
After the first match, nothing else could set the blood to boil, not when it had already evaporated.
The duels ran at half-strength at best. The members of Seoul U had retreated earlier, taking with them their advisor, likely to strategise and lick their wounds. Kyoto meanwhile, sent out a few members who stuck strictly to Western spellcraft.
Gwen chose to stay close to the buffet table, sipping Mao-tai and pulverising the vitality-rich crab claws harvested from Yangon's mana-rich river between her carapace-crushing teeth.
At present, Kyoto U's shugenja and priestess sat politely to one side, holding small talk while Ariel and Caliban slithered about underfoot, teasing the Mages for crystals.
On her other side sat Jiantong's Captain, already flushed from his second glass of rice wine, speaking slowly and carefully lest he fell into a potential honey trap.
Eunae meanwhile, sat on a stool beside a jubilant Anita, blissfully supping on a young coconut.
"I feel so full of vitality," she remarked to the team's Mineral Mage, blushed by the booze. "Come what may- let me at em!"
The rest of the team broke into laughter while Richard returned with Lulan.
"Healing Word!" Eunae managed the Sword Mage's flesh wound. "Does it hurt?"
"There isn't much sensation when my Iron Heart is active," Lulan clarified, stretching her leg. "Thanks, Eunae."
"You should have gone for the face," Richard advised with a grin. "It'll take a Regenerate to restore sensory organs, and I have a feeling the Emei girls are underplaying their hand."
"They have a sword formation that's famous among the Clans, a kind of low-tier Simulacrum," Lulan agreed with the second statement. "Vivian has to be the Illusionist, Vicky's blow felt like a Transmuters."
"They can formation all they want." Richard laughed. "Good spell fodder for Chain Lightning."
Fudan's party collectively sighed with satisfaction. What a spectacle that had been. It perfectly demonstrated that certain spells, when mastered, constituted significant milestones.
For Fire Mages, the ubiquitous Fireball at tier 3 was the single most practical magic in existence. For Evokers especially, even well into their career as Magisters, the spell remained a constant companion, an invocation so ingrained it could manifest with a thought.
Conversely, for Mineral and Earthen Mages, it was Stone Shape or Transmute Stone that made all the difference, swiftly adding versatility and utility to all Schools of Magic.
As for Air Mages, Flight served as the tipping point of their advantage, after which no other Elementalist might hope to catch an Air Affinity Combat Mage without Teleportation or a means to restrain their mobility.
Finally, for Lightning Mages, their sweet fruit of deliverance came at the end of a long, hard road in the form of Chain Lightning, originating from the Icelandic Gothar. The earliest records pointed to a Mage of antiquity known as Thangbrand the Priest, who deployed the ancient magic against Ice Giants.
As for Gwen's specific variation of Chain Lightning, her private instructor had delivered a spell which, in Walken's words, secured his previous career. Incepting as an Air Mage, he initially struggled to invoke complex multi-target strikes, and so had spent years researching and modifying the original incantation so that with Aella's aid, he could replicate the spell.
When applied to Ariel, the two then discovered that her pseudo-Kirin was capable of reinvigorating a refracted bolt, continuing the cycle. With Gwen's current Affinity, the second sequence reduced her Chain Lightning to half-strength, while the third cycle was little more effective than a low-tier Lightning Missile. However, when fused with Almudj's Essence, it took three cycles for the bolt to be reduced to its original strength, arguably capable of returning for a fourth and final strike.
Though impressive, the spell was highly conditional. First, targets had to be intimately displaced. Second, while cycling, targets must remain within range, as a single Teleportation or Blink could disrupt the flow of the spell as it refracted from each victim. Third, Ariel must remain in range and immobile, opening her Familiar to banishment, assaults, and other dangers. Lastly and finally, the spell's effectiveness dwindled against Abjurers who are capable of dampening her lightning, as each strike relied on carrying over energy from the last. In the worst case scenario, a skilled Earthen Mage with a strong metal-element may ground the first strike, undoing the spell altogether. In tests conducted with Walken's conjured targets, it was against clustered aerial foes that the Signature invocation truly shined.
Though as Walken noted, countermeasures were her opponent's problem: as a group; they fed her Chain Lightning. Alone, she could eat them alive.
That was the "Fear of Gwen" he had intended.
All that was left was the competition itself.
Magister Lutz von Schlabrendorff stood by the window atop the Royal Strand by Seikkantha Park. His suite overlooked the Secretariat below, where the students should by now be returning to their rooms.
For the next few days, the students could socialise and get to know the people and the land. Of course, the competition itself would take place in Kachin, ten hours Mage Flight north of Mandalay, but the students didn't know that.
Standing in the middle of the luxurious living room, the Magister closed his eyes, allowing greater focus.
Lutz invoked a high-tier detection spell which reacted to the presence of unsavoury enchantments within the vicinity of the caster. At his behest, a ripple of vibrant energy manifested as a sphere radiating from the caster, enveloping the top floor of the hotel.
"Hmm…" Lutz grunted with displeasure. He was being watched. For the defeated ruling remnant of an uncivilised frontier, the audacity shown by this House of M was astounding.
"Obfuscate!" A second invocation from the School of Illusion was enough to render any Divination below tier 7 senseless.
"Evelyn," the Magister spoke into a Message spell of his own making, utilising a private network established between himself and the advisors for the various teams. "Inform Walken I need to speak with him."
"Yessir," came the reply from Magister Evelyn Hass, his right-hand woman.
Lutz had all but ten minutes to set up the lumen-projector and conjure two servings of Old Fashioned before Hass returned, signalling Walken's arrival.
"Come in." Lutz unlocked the door with a wave of his hand.
"Eric, it's been too long."
"Good to see you too, Lutz."
The two shared a friendly handshake.
"Please, take a seat, make yourself comfortable." Lutz indicated to the spacious hotel room. "I've got something interesting to show you."
Each of the veteran Mages took up a spot around the room while Magister Hass left the room.
"Replay," Lutz commanded the lumen-recorder.
The scene now projected in the living room was the match between Gwen Song and Seoul U.
Manipulating glyphs only he could see, Lutz's Panopticon Engine, a sophisticated crystalline device operable only by the Chief Proctor, shifted its angle until it focused on the dais upon which the House of M's representative, the lithe Miss Maymyint, holding a flute of golden liqueur.
"Eric." Lutz indicated to the sight of their female host. "As you are aware, a part of the Panopticon is designed to identify oddities, such as malignant magic utilised to aid students to gain an unfair advantage. In reviewing suspicious magic during the match— observe."
The Mages watched a thin golden thread materialise, linking Maymyint and Mayuree.
"Now that IS interesting."
Walken knew that The Eye of Providence was a class III restricted Divination Spell originating from a darker era under the Papal Inquisition. With it, a Diviner may monitor and record the activities of students and their actions during the competition.
"Well, Eric? What do you have to say for your local contestant?"
"If you must know, she was a temporary shoo-in," Walken grumbled darkly. "The original Diviner quit, saying that she didn't want to die, and her sister, our host, volunteered Mayuree. I can assure you, Lutz- if there is any attempt at subverting the fairness of the game, my team will have no part in it. I've proctored in the past. I know how this works."
Lutz von Schlabrendorff regarded his old friend from the Grey Faction, then exhaled. "Needless to say, if this happens during the Quest, penalties will apply."
"Maybe the House of M is planning something," Walken changed the subject. "Can you do me a favour and route some information from the betting houses?"
"You think they're trying to make a quick mound of HDMs? It's nothing so crass," Lutz refuted Walken's hypothesis. "The House of M donated three-hundred thousand HDMs to the competition's coffers, Eric, and they're paying for all expenses incurred while we're in Burma."
Walken smirked at the nation's old colonial name. To think that only a decade had passed since the Mageocracy pulled out before the Orientals had a dragon infest the north. It was laughable how incompetent these prideful independence governments could be.
"What do you suggest?"
"Nothing. I'll leave that to you." Lutz offered his old colleague a glass of the Old Fashioned, now suitably infused. "The IIUC must go on. Remember, so long as our host holds up their part of the agreement with the Committee, we are a strictly neutral party. For good reasons, we do not interfere, even if the contestants are to lose their lives."
"So, this is a favour?"
"Would you believe pity? You need this. Don't you?"
Walken grunted. Pity was the right word. To think one of the Oceania Ten was now reduced to chaperoning an eighteen-year-old girl Mage like a steward.
"What happened to your famous impartiality?"
"The match hasn't started yet. Can't a man chat with an old friend?"
"Well then, thanks, Lutz." Walken breathed out, bowing his head slightly. "I appreciate it."
"I am doing it for the girl as well." Lutz von Schlabrendorff scratched his temple. "A talent like that, remind you of someone?"
"Gwen is…" Walken checked his tongue. "...different."
"Time will tell." Lutz appeared unconvinced. "Like Sobel, I anticipate the Mageocracy will squeeze a decade out of her at least, two at best. Though I don't think there'll be another Kilroy to ferment a second Sobel. I still can't believe old Henry died such a needless death. He was the best of us."
"They could use her to fight Sobel, you know." Walken tasted a metallic tang of guilt on his tongue. "I can tell you Gwen has good cause to give it her all."
"Ha!" Lutz von Schlabrendorff laughed, swirling his drink. "Good luck with that, Eric. May the best team win."
"I thought the competition isn't about winning?"
Lutz von Schlabrendorff swilled the last of his drink; then the room filled with rye-scented laughter.
Walken teleported back into his hotel room, feeling an urgent need to set matters into motion.
He discerned immediately the error of letting his passions ferment, channelling a little too much of Henry. He reminded himself that his old rival had grown soft, and that was why he failed. Henry had let his students' affections affect his thinking; he allowed his sentiments for his wife to impact his judgement.
Mayuree, defrauding the competition? He found that unlikely. No, this was something more. Something nefarious. He could feel it in his bones; it was just the sort of thing he would plot.
Shuffling out of his jacket, he washed his face to cool his head.
How to proceed? Walken asked himself.
The contents of the match remained unknowable. Lutz wasn't THAT generous.
Should they swallow the risk and persist in their suit?
To bail— to reconvene, may very well waste their immovable advantage. As the team stood now, Jiantong's Captain was amiable to cooperation, Kyoto U had been charmed by Gwen's pseudo-Kirin, and Seoul had been suitably oppressed.
As for Mayuree.
If this were the Eric Walken of the past, there would a hundred and one ways to make the Diviner cough up the truth.
But thanks to Gwen' soft-heartedness, disabling the girl was out of the question, not to mention they genuinely needed a Diviner.
As for the path of least resistance, Walken knew he had to do the unthinkable; he had to tell Gwen the truth.
"Yes? Who is it?"
Gwen opened the door to find Eric Walken standing at the entrance of her Secretariat's west-wing guest room.
"Gwen, we need to talk."
Had Walken's face been any less the likeness of a basilisk, she would have thought the old man desiring a heart to heart, but the firmness of Walken's jaws indicated this was serious.
"Right, what's the matter?"
"Bring your Habitat."
At the mention of her portal Faraday cage, Gwen realised the trouble might be more severe than she initially thought.
"Righto, one sec."
In her spacious guest room were almost a dozen girls fondling Ariel and playing cards. Within her seraglio of feminine figures, she had the hungover Lulan, the thankful Eunae, Anita, Rene, and to Walken's great surprise, Yuki, the Captain of the Kyoto team, as well as a few of her companions, was even now holding Gwen's Kirin with a dreamy expression. Together, the girls had been playing Da-Lao-Er, a game she had learned from Tao, engaging in an equally entertaining but far less destructive royal rumble.
After much grumbling and a promise to leave Ariel behind, Gwen met Walken in the courtyard. One HDM later, the duo joined in the grey space of the habitat's courtyard.
"Here's fine." Walken eyed the conjured home. "Listen well. The Chief Proctor has just informed me that your friend Mayuree is under suspicion of using Mind Link to violate the rules of the competition."
Gwen's eyes grew as large as hen's eggs; a complaint reached her lips reflexively.
"Hold your horses." Walken put up a hand. "Lutz doesn't know Mayuree as you do, nor does he have the information that we have, such as your involvement with her, or the House of M."
Gwen swallowed. She did not recall telling Walken any of this. If so, where had he gotten the information?
"Call it due diligence." Walken gave her a sideways look. "Something that will preoccupy much of your time should you ever come to possess a Tower. So, are we in agreement that your previously naive friend lacked the mental means to execute such a daring subversion?"
"Definitely." Gwen nodded, thinking of the demure Mayuree, who could be overexcited and careless but who certainly wasn't capable of pulling a con like this. "What do you propose?"
"I don't believe this Maymyint is so foolish as to mind-tap Mayuree in the middle of a match. More than likely, I think it's plausible that your friend is under the influence of her sister to perform some bidding. The more I hear about this, the more I am starting to suspect that there's some disastrous event on the horizon. The Tyrant, your friend, the House of M, Myăma, all of it. There's a piece of the puzzle missing, but I just can't put my finger on the pulse of it."
"Ah…" Gwen realised immediately the precise piece of the puzzle that Walken was missing, objectively speaking. There was one thing Walken could not discover through observing her finances, habits and charming her host of loose-lipped mentors. "Eric, there's something I think I should tell you."
Walken ceased his pacing, then met her eyes.
"Don't get angry, because its not something I would have trust you with at any rate."
Walken sighed. "Go on."
"Well…" Gwen organised her thoughts. "See, this whole thing started when I entered Fudan, and I ran into Mayuree and Kitty at the Scholarship Exam…"
Walken listened with increasing grimness while Gwen clarified the conditions of Mayuree's prophesy-driven friendship.
"The Matriarch of the House of M must be senile to pull a stunt like this," Walken spluttered. "Even assuming Mayuree's vision is correct, there's no proof you haven't saved her already. Unless she's the Oracle of Delphi, her foresight could be entirely impressionistic or abstract."
Walken paced back and forth.
"I assume that somehow, the House of M is growing desperate to defeat this Tyrant. Paying tithings to a dragon that occupies a mountain isn't news. It's a tradition as old as time itself. I think something has disturbed the status quo."
Gwen watched her advisor wrack his brain.
"So, the primary outcome, assuming their ploy works, is that they planned for the Tyrant, a draconic-being of some sort, to attack Mayuree. Then, assuming Mayuree lives, there can only be one outcome— someone has to defeat the dragon, thereby freeing their nation from the threat of the Tyrant."
"BUT—" Walken continued. "That's not possible. From what I can see, Myăma is a wealthy country. There's bound to be at least a dozen Magister-level casters, not to mention they can hire mercenaries. That they remain in thrall means the Tyrant is beyond the ability of Mages without the backing of a Tower to challenge. It implies the Tyrant must be at least five or more centuries old, starting to moult, drawing power from the land's ley lines, only then is it beyond the challenge of a mortal Mage. Only a Tower can cut the dragon off its near infinite supply of mana."
Her advisor exhaled.
"I think their plan is doomed to fail." Walken shook his head. "Either these locals have no idea what they're facing, or there are greater powers at play than we can know."
"Should we inform the proctors?"
"The IIUC Committee won't act," Walken explained. "Lutz has a spell called the Eye of Providence. It's highly restricted Panopticon-Class Divination linked to the Towers. When the competition begins, you will all carry beacons that make you subject to direct observation. During the competition, Lutz and the others will not interfere, no matter what happens. Afterwards…"
"There'll be hell to pay?"
"Yes, which is why none of this makes sense." Walken gnashed his teeth. "What's there to gain for the House of M? You win, the Towers will come down on Myăma. You all die? They would come down on the House, then the dragon. Myăma will be a Black Zone."
The two of them remained silent while they mulled on the matter.
"I guess I'll play it by ear." Gwen's thoughts turned to her friend. "Poor Mia… and that snake Maymyint! To think she helped me with Kitty. Bloody Kitty, I wonder if she's in on this."
"Presumably the House of M will send you toward the north, where the dragon will be in your path. As for the Tyrant: one can only guess what creature lurks in those mountains. Either way, the teams have enough offensive firepower to wound it, though defeating it would be impossible."
"Eric." Gwen grounded her teeth guiltily, realising she had omitted yet another a critical fact. "Can I tell you something else? You can't get mad, okay."
Walken furrowed his brows. "What now?"
"Er… I might know who the Tyrant is."
Her advisor blinked.
"Alright." The old man appeared unfazed. "Confess."
"I have it on good authority that it's probably an in-law... my Uncle's wife's brother; someone called Ruxin. According to Ayxin, he came to Myăma some three decades ago, the exact time that the Tyrant appeared. He's a full-blooded Thunder Dragon, about five hundred years old, and he's looking to nest and mate."
"… okay." Walken pinched his forehead. "So an Asiatic Blue Dragon in the moulting phase, going musth- anything else?"
Golos' name simmered at Gwen's throat. She had promised herself not to count on the stupid prophecy as a part of her plans, but the dots were joining together inside her head. Even if Golos came in at the eleventh hour to save her from certain death, how could he possibly fight a mature Dragon? The Thunder Wyvern, by Jun's count, was just over two centuries old, he is a young buck and would only be dragon fodder. It made far more sense that Golos shows up to explain that if Ayxin lost her niece, her new husband would be furious, meaning Ruxin would have to now deal with both Axyin and Jun, as well as the family, friends, institutions, and the country of anyone else who went down with her. Surely Mayuree isn't worth that much trouble.
"Wait, I do!"
Gwen materialised the Storage Ring Maymyint had given her.
"Maymyint gave me this, and told me to open it when the time comes."
"Allow me." Walken volunteered his well being. With great care, he attuned himself, hawkishly watching every mote of mana.
It was just a mundane Storage Ring.
And within was a device Gwen recognised as a transponder.
Walken inspected the device, a thing carved from jadeite.
"A paired transponder?" Walken palmed the device a few times. "One way as well. It's not for tracking you, but for directing the user to something else, a sister-device. Stranger and stranger."
"I guess we'll find out," Gwen said. "Should we confront Maymyint?"
"Leave it." Walken appeared deep in thought. "Against a schemer, it's always best if they think us ignorant. If you claim to know this Tyrant and he confronts your team, there may be something that we can use to our advantage."
"You know what." Gwen fingered the transponder gingerly. "What if this whole thing could be resolved just by me having a chat with Ruxin? I could wax some sentiments about his sister, about his dad Yinglong whom I hung out with, sort of, and about how we're like, family and stuff now and we're not a threat to him. I could tell him all about the House of M's ploy to turn the world against him, and he could deal with Maymyint himself, saving us the trouble."
"That's an absurd proposal." Walken baulked.
"I'll make a good case, I can be very convincing," Gwen insisted. "Think about it, what would Ruxin gain by attacking us unprovoked? The ire of the entire IIUC committee from the most powerful universities around? Does the dragon even want to keep his mountain? If he kills or maims us, there'll be Towers, least of all from Gunther, parked five-deep in his ass by next month. I imagine brooding eggs while been pounded by Gunther-beams would be pretty hard."
"At the very least, this land will be cut off to him," Walken agreed. "Still, don't do something so stupid if you don't have to. When the match starts, proceed as you will. If Ruxin starts rampaging, take your friends and run. You'll be fine so long as you're not the slowest, there's plenty of fodder."
"… Eric, seriously?"
"A dragon breathing down on you isn't serious enough?"
Gwen rolled her eyes.
"Gwen." Walken faced her seriously. "Listen to me. You might think that I am a coward, and I know your real zodiac is that of the mule, but you have to listen. Your life is extraordinary- many people are looking toward your future. Gunther and Alesia are waiting for you so that one day the three of you might visit Sobel. Your friends, Yue, and Elvia are waiting for your return to Sydney. Your grandparents are anticipating your triumph. Petra, your friends, and I, we're all looking forward to what you'll do in the future.
"This is the IIUC. People fail all the time, and sometimes, contestants die. Gwen, despite everything: you're allowed to fail. The IIUC is a stepping stone, an important one, but just a step. In life, you'll have failures, but don't falter by dying. If you perish: all is lost. There are no second chances, no second life. Even Deathless Henry, someone I'd never thought would be gone from this world, lost his life, and now all of us are adrift in the wake of his passing. You must survive; else none of this is worthwhile, understand?"
Their eyes met, and the Magister could see that the girl was digesting his thoughts, becoming more miserable for the wisdom of his words.
"In the meanwhile." Walken sighed in turn. "Keep an eye on Mayuree, but let nothing slip."