For their layover, the team had the choice of exploring Yangon on a motorised rickshaw with a young monk as a guide or join Mayuree's coach group. Though the city had no restrictions on flying, the local populace frowned upon Mages gliding over the golden stupas that dotted the city, and so magical locomotion mostly remained within the realm of discrete teleportation and mechanised transport.
To Fudan's surprise, the leadership of the Kyoto team agreed to Mayuree's offer, with their squad Captain taking such a shine to Ariel that Gwen was beginning to feel awkward for having to zap the girl in the competition to come.
For the first day, the Mayuree Express took the group into the local craftsmen's district, urging the contestants to dispense some of their first-world HDMs. At the Dagon Market, the girls single-handedly elevated families by distributing the equivalent of yearly incomes as they stuffed their storage rings with hand-made shawls, scarves, local dresses and silk-print fabrics. As for the men who had decided to join, Richard entertained his Familiar, Lea, who fancied the floral colours and myriad spices that dotted the place, while Jiro and Ichiro seemed to hit it off after losing their minds within the hour.
For the tour's luncheons and dinners, Mayuree introduced the local fare, consisting of Mohinga fish soup with rice noodles, creamy aromatic catfish curry, deep fried curdled tofu, and Laphet Thohk – pickled tea salad.
It was between a delicious meal of fried fish in caramelised fish-sauce and stuffed pork-skewers that Mayuree showed her true colours.
"This meatball is so buttery!" Gwen, the gastronomic adventurer, had been nourishing her ever-lingering hunger when Mayuree's expression grew strange. Not realising, Gwen smacked her lips, giving her glistening, greasy lips a quick lick, then complimented the local cuisine. "What an original taste! Like a firm oyster."
"What's wrong?" Anita poked what appeared to be a musk-scented poached egg.
"If you scrap off the curry…" Richard noted. "You'll find that it's an entirely original ingredient."
Gwen performed the careful operation by following Richard's advice, realising that Mayuree had made a crack at her expense, knowing that she was willing to eat anything.
"I see!" She gagged, relishing the creaminess on her tongue, feeling a little disgusted. "It's an eye- yeah? It's a goat or a sheep's eyeball!"
Mayuree shook and quivered as she stifled her merriment.
The rest of her teammates, as well as their guests, laughed as well, though much more awkwardly.
Below the table, Ariel and Caliban chowed down as half-a-dozen Mages gingerly put their bowls onto the floor, donating the still simmering goat gonads out of the goodness of their dear hearts.
After a quaking Gwen forced a fried gonad between Mayuree's resisting lips, subsequent meals were taken at colonial establishments, as well as at modernised hotels around the port, where the majority of the country's trade with China, India, and colonial Indochina took place.
From roof-top restaurants, the team dined on Australian steak and drank French wine almost a century old, eating seafood from the Gulf of Martaban, prying crystal flesh from scampi and crabs fresh from the Bay of Bangor.
The next morning and the next, they sat drinking cold-dripped coffee and enjoying the morning sun from a lounge thirty-stories high, realising just how nourishing and comfortable the unfiltered sun could feel on the skin.
All the while, Gwen studied her friend. It was without a doubt that this was the Mayuree she had known, but there was also a queerness to her actions, akin to the unsettling sensation of entering an uncanny valley. While Ariel interacted fine with Mia, Gwen felt a disingenuine and jarring sense of reservedness. As a mental parallel, Mayuree's exuberance reminded Gwen of some of her colleague's wives whose manic joy smacked of a morning and afternoon glass of Chardonnay.
It was finally on the fourth day that Gwen managed to corner Mayuree alone in the public spa of the Strand hotel, their modesty preserved by a layer of Egyptian cotton. After some teasing here and there, Gwen had invited Mayuree to join her for some high-spec skin pampering, taking advantage of the House of M's unlimited lavishness.
"Ah-." Gwen exhaled as a female masseuse worked her elbows into the nook of her shoulders. She then turned to her companion. "Thanks for everything, Mia."
"Don't mention it." Mayuree was a little distance away, enjoying a good ginger-lime rubdown from a pair of giggling young women awed by the duo's presence. "It's the least I could do for my friend."
"So." Gwen caught the unnatural formality. "I never asked why you decided to join the IIUC. You're just putting yourself in danger, you know."
"But you're here to save me, right?" Mayuree buried her head in the elevated lounge, where an aperture left the customer's nose and mouth free to breathe. Below, a pool of essential oils distilled from Wildland jasmine wafted upward, nourishing the mind.
"That goes without saying." Gwen allowed her neck to relax as the masseuse worked on her legs, starting with her rather sensitive toes. "Still, to think all of this began with an Eland Core. I wonder if I've paid it off by now, do you recall how high the auction had gotten? Five thousand?"
"Ten thousand," Mayuree remarked. "But you've done so much more for us."
Close but no Cigar, Gwen corrected her friend silently. She was starting to pick up little pieces where Mayuree's memories lapsed, not unlike herself when it came to alter-Gwen's childhood. From what Walken discerned, Mayuree was glamoured under something akin to the tier 5 Hypnotic Suggestion or the more invasive tier 6 Implant Agenda. Both spells sealed away certain aspects of the victim's ego, while the latter operated as a trigger, forcing the victim to enact a particular action when a condition was met.
"According to Irene, spells like Dominate Mind have a fatal flaw," her advisor stated after casually dismissing his encyclopaedic knowledge of Mind Magic. "The controlled target tends to draw knowledge subconsciously and without the benefit of context or subtlety. They can blurt out long-held secrets in the presence of the wrong party, or reveal knowledge of themselves otherwise kept sacred."
And so, from Gwen's subtle goading of Mayuree in recounting their good times at Fudan, she was beginning to figure out when Mayuree was and wasn't in the driving seat.
As for the dispelling of whatever potential enchantment holding her friend, she had two options. The first was to find a Mind Mage of equal power to Maymyint, who Walken anticipated was tier 6 at best. The second was for their resident Cleric, Eunae, to attempt a Greater Dispel Magic once they were away from the city.
At any rate, for now, all she could do was roll the dice and move her piece the allocated number of squares.
If there was one good that came with co-trafficking in Maymyint's deception, it was that the team got to dip their feet in the proverbial water of Yangon River, gaining access to offices and temples.
Myăma, as they now knew, was divided into the wealthy south and the ravaged north. In the south, the presence of Yangon and its Buddhist pagoda had pacified the region's dangerous demi-humans for aeons, ensuring a relative prosperous human settlement.
Up north, midway to the old royal city of Mandalay, was the abandoned city of Naypyitaw, half-built and barely populated when the Tyrant laid its claim. After that, over the next three decades, the north continued to decay, losing infrastructure even as its mining operations boomed, uncovering seam after seam of gold, gems, jade, and other precious minerals. From this cache, a portion went to the Tyrant as a tithe, while the rest was traded away to maintain the House of M's hold on Yangon, the last seat of power of the old regime.
As for the Tyrant itself, Gwen and co were shocked to find that the locals knew only of its existence as a sort of natural disaster. Even when she consulted with the older monks, their stories consisted only of mystical euphemisms, such as that of the hubris of Aung San, who tempted the Earthen Asura and its incessant greed, bring divine retribution.
When she asked about operations relating to the House of M, the monks had no idea, and the labouring NoMs, mostly illiterate, struggled to understand her inquiries. But overall, the people of Mayuree's homeland differed little to NoMs elsewhere, desiring a universal wish for shelter, food, and procreation.
"If you mean the cherished scions of Nanmadaw Me Nu." An old abbot's face grew kind when finally Gwen explained that she wanted to know more about Mayuree and Miss Maymyint. "Then they are our saviours. Many of us fled from the holy stupas and monasteries in the royal capital when the Tyrant came, and we would have starved to death were it not for the actions of the Matriarch and her children."
"So, the old leader of the nation was General Aung San, three-decades ago?"
"We do not speak of that demon." the old master sighed. "May the tempter of the Asura be returned a thousand-fold onto the eight-fold path to atone for his sins."
When she enquired further, the old master wished her well and returned to his meditation, leaving Gwen with the distinct impression that somehow, the web of truths had gotten even more complicated.
One week later, upon the seventh morning of the student's arrival, the contestants returned to the Secretariat to receive their Quest.
Seoul U had by now recovered from their earlier setback. After an impressive entrance in their charcoal uniforms, the Lee brothers dipped their heads at Fudan as they passed, snubbing the others.
Kyoto once again appeared in their traditional attires, with half the team dressed in the Miko's scarlet hakama and ivory haori, their long ponytails tied with a red ribbon. Ichiro and Yuki both bowed their heads as Fudan took their place, with the girls waving at Gwen as she passed.
Finally, besides Fudan stood their old rivals, Jiantong, who tensed as Fudan's Mages looked their way. Their Captain, however, appeared far more relaxed than his peers, particularly the anxious-looking Kurou, who averted his eyes when a certain Void Sorceress looked his way.
Upon the same dais stood their exam proctors, a team of ten Magisters and Maguses, as well as Maymyint with a group of representatives from the House of M.
"Contestants, welcome!" Magister von Schlabrendorff once again greeted the students. "I hope that in the days since your arrival, you have gotten to know the local culture a bit better and understood its people's needs and desires, their values, hopes and fears. Now, as you are well aware of our purpose, let us proceed to the competition itself!"
A cautious silence descended upon the contestants as their ears strained.
"Students, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to announce the first round of the 2004 IIUC. Your Quest comes from the House of M of Myăma, our host and sponsor. The location will be the State of Kachin, located in Northern Myăma, south of the Chinese border and north of Mandalay. In a moment, the details of your Quest will be given to you in the form of a scroll, upon which you will imprint your mana signatures as an acknowledgement of its contents."
With the details unveiled, the students began to murmur.
"Your team will use a Teleportation Circle to reach Mandalay, from where you shall assemble a party of five individuals to complete objectives in Kachin State while the home team completes quests around Mandalay in support of the away team."
"As for your objective itself, the away team will proceed toward the mining township of Hpakan, an Orange Zone, famous in all of South East Asia for its production of the highest calibre of jadeite. There, each university shall be assigned a village, namely Kamaing, La War, Nanmati and Mogaung. Your objective is to resume the production of jadeite from the region, clear the area of hostile monsters, then rally the local populace to clear the roads blocked by landslides from the monsoonal rains, and to reconnect the village with the Mandalay Militia to re-secure the region."
"During the competition, the IIUC basecamp will be located sixty kilometres Mage flight away in Hpakan with a medical facility provided by the House of M, as well as emergency Teleportation Circles for contestants wishing to quit. The total examination time for the mission is fourteen days, starting from today. CCs will be given based on your performance achieving said objectives, tallied after extensive review one week after the competition. Expect to receive your results by the end of August."
The Magister allowed the moment to sink into the contestants' heads.
"Make sure you leave a full manifest of your carryon items with the Quarter Master. Remember, offensive Magic Items, implements, weapons, scrolls, personal vehicles and classified items not crafted by yourself are forbidden. You may keep them on your person, but you may not use them. Any transgression will result in harsh penalties and even disqualification of your whole team."
Magister von Schlabrendorff took a deep breath, watched by forty hopeful faces.
"Students! We of the IIUC committee look forward to your sterling performances! Step forward to affirm your consent for the daring glories ahead, and I shall look forward to seeing you all in Hpakan!"
Gwen checked-in a list of her items after affirming her willingness to participate in the IIUC's Myăma round. As Walken had stated, the presence of death and danger on a quest like this was par for the course.
According to the waiver, the IIUC Committee would not interfere under any circumstance to rescue the students, even if they chose to leave the competition. The rationale was that in the past, certain parties had exploited the presence of a dozen Magisters and Maguses to push forward political agendas or to clear out a stubborn region, endangering students to force the committee's hand. Not wishing to dissolve their long-running IIUC, nor willing to be wielded by scheming individuals, the Brussels Committee resolved to introduce an unreasonable but arguably understandable policy of non-interference.
The exception to the rule was that in the event of a catastrophe, a team's Advisor could step in to aid or save the students with healing restoratives as well as scrolls utilised for escaping from danger, though that would disqualify the team.
Fudan's two five-person parties lacked an Enchanter-crafter, and so they carried little more than the prepared suite of defensive items, as well as a complement of antidote and healing injectors.
Across the laneway, Gwen marvelled at the stacks of hand-written talismans carried by the Japanese team which had to be each individually verified and recorded, as well as other arcane implements akin to wands.
To their left, Jiantong presented an allotment of enchanted swords, implements crafted by the Sword Mages for their use, as well as a stack of Fuda, Chinese magical amulets, crafted by a quiet, unassuming young man called Jiufan Chen. After activating her Detect Magic and having a sneak-peek next door, she noted with disquiet that these were Illusion and Earthen empowered talismans, likely for a misdirection formation.
Conversely, Seoul U presented a host of utility Magitech from sleek Message Devices to Portable Habitats to Rings and Amulets for the whole team. Even their uniforms were magically enchanted.
When finally Gwen presented her articles, the presiding Enchanter-Magus gave a start, her breathing quickening as she inspected the increasingly lavish stock of passive items. When Gwen allowed Gunther's Contingency Ring to be examined, the woman's eyes widened, and her mouth opened and closed a few times.
"A Royal Asscher original?" The woman's breath caught in her throat. "From an E-Evil Eye's optic Core?"
"It's on loan from a family member." Gwen smiled at the woman, quickly withdrawing her hand. "Could you…"
"Of course." The female Magus promptly finished her inventory check. "Please keep safe, young Miss. There's not many of those left in the world. Every stone spent is one less treasure that will grace the Mageocracy with its beauty."
Afterwards, Gwen felt the band burning her ring finger. I should give it back to Gunther, she told herself, possessing no desire to lose the GDP of a small city. The pressure of such a thing was too much for a girl from the Frontier to handle.
With their items thusly declared, the students boarded the coach for the ISTC array for their transportation to Mandalay.
First was Kyoto, then Seoul U, then Jiantong and finally, four hours later, the underdog of the competition, Fudan, waving at the lumen-recorders as the Glyphs flashed silver and white, distorting the rational rules of space and time, piercing through the Astral Realm.
It was raining when the team arrived in Mandalay.
The dry months had already arrived at the lowland seaside regions of the nation, but where the Himalayan range curved through the north of Burma, its sky-high peaks blocked all access to the traversing clouds pregnant with lowland moisture, extending the wet season well into early September even as temperatures soared to a stifling thirty-six.
The great gusto the teams had summoned at the Secretariat was immediately dampened by the tepid air of Mandalay, submerging the students under swamp water.
Outside the refurbished ISTC chamber, the jungle crowding the verdant royal capital dawned green and glistening from the continued monsoonal efforts, with the vigour of the city gone entirely to the vegetation. Across the central business block where the old colonial buildings smouldered with mildew, the buildings glowered; here and there, mud was knee-deep, growing grasses higher than sugarcane. This deep in the Green Zone, the district felt abandoned even as it bustled with monks and labourers moving to and fro, some braving the rain, others hiding under roofs cross-thatched with banana leaves.
Improbably young and bald, a group of monks greeted the contestants as they arrived, emerging from the rain, drenched from head to toe in twos and threes. Behind them were children, almost all barefooted, splashing through the mud to catch a glimpse of the newly arrived Mages from "Big Town" outside the country's borders. To Gwen, they appeared as beautiful and happy children, skinny and caramel, with gleaming white teeth yet to be stained by betel-nut tea.
Once the team relocated to an assembly point, they huddled to plot their next step.
"From here, you're all alone." Walken activated some imperceptible magic to manage his impeccable hair and beard, now fraying thanks to the excess moisture. "Considering the nature of the quest ahead, your Captain Bai will explain."
"Alright, everyone." Tei took a deep breath. "On the surface; it looks like we have two tasks. The first is to send out an away team to reach our assigned village- La War - as soon as possible to assess the situation. The second is for a home team to organise a local force to begin pushing northward to meet the first team in a fortnight. I think we can safely assume that our proctors will assess our ability to get as much accomplished in two weeks as possible. Gwen, can you explain the team makeup and our projected activities?"
"Pertaining to necessary talents, I will lead the away team, consisting of me, Anita, Richard, Lulan and Mayuree," Gwen explained. "I have full confidence that in a mountainous region like Kachin state, there will be no shortage of landslides due to the monsoonal rain. Assuming this is what the examiners have planned, we are essentially engaging in search and rescue missions, combining area defence with disaster relief. Anita and Lulan are both well versed in Stone Shape and Transmute Earth, essential for maintaining the safety of our assigned settlement. Richard's ability to shift large volumes of water…"
Gwen pointed at the bucketing rain.
"… will be essential in anything that we do. Mayuree will be able to locate missing persons, serve as a relay for our Messages, and detect allies and enemies through the dense jungle. As for myself, I should be able to handle most creatures in the Orange Zone, as well as any of our competitors. If nothing else, I doubt anything can catch up with my vomit-inducing Dimension Doors."
Her teammates shared a few nervous chuckles, lacking her natural confidence. Kitty, Gwen noted, stared intently at the floor. The girl had been avoiding her as always, only sticking to Mayuree whenever the two could be alone.
As for the mission, Gwen's confidence was founded on old world headlines. Owing partly to the clarifying power of her Ioun Stone and partly due to her essence-altered powers of recall, she remembered that Kachin State had been famous for all the wrong reasons in her old world.
Kachin was the hotbed of horrors that formented the Kachin Civil War, begotten by the British when they erased the old border between Myăma and the traditional land of the Kachin-Jinpo people. For decades after the pullout of the Empire, the people of Kachin demanded independence, only to be met with brutal massacres orchestrated by the Burmese Junta. As late as 2015, she recalled that Kachin suffered from an inundation of yearly rain, exacerbated by the poorly planned mines dotting the mountains like hornet hives. Knowing the House of M's appetite for profit, it was entirely possible that "Corporate" had left the local villages to fend for themselves while the company's miners drew back into Mandalay.
According to their proctor's documents, Kachin was an Orange Zone partly because the local Demi-human tribes had long-resisted the rule of the Myăman government, and that they should beware of the complex web of alliances between each village. As for Mandalay, the old royal capital was the last outpost of true human civilisation before the young Mages stepped foot into the Wildlands.
"Thank you, Gwen," Tei continued where she left off. "Meanwhile, me, Rene, Jiro, Kitty and Eunae will be organising a supply train with the locals to leave in one week. Assuming Gwen's hypothesis of what lies in store is correct, we will be able to maximise our CCs if our supply can supplement your rescue efforts, or at least shorten the time it takes to produce visible results."
"That rain is going to be a problem." Richard raised his hand. "Lea says it's going to continue to pour like this every few hours, day and night. I can keep us dry, but it's going to waste unnecessary mana."
"Let's get changed then." Gwen pulled at her sundress, its sheer fabric already clinging like a second skin. She glared miserably at the rain, yearning for the American-made body-armour Jun had brought to Huangshan. "I guess it's going to be soggy skin-suits all the way..."