After her trip in Singapore, Gwen knew that traversing through a sub-tropical jungle wasn't going to happen without permanent protection. There were bugs- and there were bugs, then there were parasitical carnivorous plants, barbed roots, spiked fruits, flesh-eating flowers and predatory fauna.
But torrential rain was new.
In Australia, flood and fire reigned, but the precipitation wasn't ten-thousand Calibans in a chorus of "Shaaa!" for hours on end.
"I don't think flying in this weather is going to be very practical," Gwen grumbled as she walked into the pouring rain to test her gear. Immediately, her combat mesh sagged, her potion pouches drowned, and her Chinese-made water-repelling combat boots grew sodden. "I think we could swim there…"
"I feel unwell." Jiro raised his hand, his fire element reacting badly to the moisture.
"Yep, glad we're staying behind to organise the supply train." Rene shuddered as she watched the swell of water stream through the street.
Earlier, the team had taken a tour through the city to gain their bearings, taking in what they could of the old Royal Capital. Historically, it was originally constructed by King Mindon, the last pre-colonial ruler of old Myăma before a civil war incited by the British Mageocracy looted its riches. When the deposed royal household attempted to reclaim the ancient capital in 1967, the Tyrant routed their army. Then in 1973, the city was sacked anew, with the Tyrant ravaging the jadeite-encrusted Kyauk Taw Gyi Pagoda and looting the Jade Pillar.
As the ancient capital now stood, the administrative district was surrounded by a moat, while individual stupas of varying sizes acted as Shielding Stations, warding away the magical beasts and creatures that lurked in the jungle and the city's many canals. What was once a vibrant capital of a million souls now wasted away amidst an emerald sea awash with flora, with barely two hundred thousand of its inhabitants remaining; all of whom serviced the mineral and gem trade that lied at the heart of Myăma's wealth.
Whoom! A low rumble passed overhead.
"There's Seoul U." Mayuree was the first to note their mana signature.
Fudan's contestants looked up to see five Mages travelling in a wedge formation, parting the cascading rain with water-repelling cloaks, making a ghastly racket as their Captain ploughed through the deluge.
"Looks like they got crystals to burn." Richard raised a brow. "I wonder if there are CC penalties for spending more crystals than one would otherwise earn in a quest."
"There's not a problem as far as I know." Wry smiles echoed Tei's reply. "Brute force is one way to do it, though they'll be visible for kilometres, not to mention they might anger whatever's living below."
"I wonder how the others are getting to their villages," Gwen said.
"We'll find out soon. Our assigned settlements are less than ten to twenty kilometres apart. Don't forget to watch out for our Korean friends, last year they herded all their monsters into our district," Tei warned the away team. "They lost CCs, but we failed our objective."
"Gotcha, I'll keep an eye out." Gwen wondered if the Lees held fresh grudges or liked revenge served cold.
"Alright, then." Richard eyed the rain. "Stay close for now. Lea will divert the flow of water. Let's hope this rain stops before my mana drops."
"Hold up!" Something clicked in her head. "Ariel!"
"EEE!" Ariel appeared in the rain. As expected, its fish-scale fur was hydrophobic.
"Ah-ha!" she exulted, recalling that Dragon Carps swam through air and water alike.
The others formed up behind.
"Gwen, everyone, safe travels." Walken nodded at the students.
"We'll be waiting." Gwen bowed her head. "Eunae, Kitty, everyone. Take care!"
"Don't let a hair on Mia's head get damaged!" Kitty bristled. "Promise!"
"I promise!" Gwen replied, though her eyes landed on Eunae, who together with Walken, returned a subtle nod.
With Ariel leading the teardrop slipstream, the Fudan party formed into a bizarre train, blasting through the water like a slick comet.
While serving as the locomotive's engine, Gwen envisioned lashing together eight of her bloodhounds, Caliban, and a phosphorescent Ariel, thinking what fun it could be to ride a Kirin-sleigh.
Trailing behind, the rest of the party observed the urban sprawl dwindle into reclaimed nature, beyond which were five hundred kilometres of Wildland as the reindeer flew.
To the traveller's left, the Irrawaddy River roared brown and turbulent through the landscape, making up-stream travel impossible. In the distance sat the Arakan mountains, forming the border with Bangladesh, its vast catchment pouring south toward the Bay of Bengal.
The party had clocked about two hours of monotony when they spotted their first place of respite, Pan Kone, a mining-cum-fishing village. This far north, human settlements fed off the river's riches, with its NoMs panning for gold and gems cascading from the Arakan basin into the lowland.
"Pitstop," Gwen communicated through the Silent Messages provided by Mayuree's presence. When flying, the buffeting wind and streaming water ensured that oral communication was all but impossible.
As one, the team descended.
The village consisted of a few hundred huts made from thatch and wood, resting on stilts that lifted buildings some two meters from the ground to avoid the inevitable flood. In the centre of the village, on the highest point of a hill, stood the communal hut, a brick and mortar building on concrete foundations.
"Hail." Lulan raised both hands as they landed on the decking. "Can we dry ourselves here? We're international students from Fudan University on a quest to aid Kachin deal with the monsoon."
An old abbot waved back.
"Come in," he offered with nonchalance. "The guest area is readied for your arrival."
Gwen inspected the interior for signs of the others, herself grateful to be out of the downpour. "Have the others arrived before us?"
"The Japanese arrived an hour ago." The venerable priest nodded benevolently, revealing darkly stained teeth. "Though they left shortly after."
"Old Master, what's the rain like this season?" Gwen wrung the water from her hair. "How are things in Kachin? I bet it's hard to keep up an insurrection when you can't even keep your sandals dry."
"Ho, you claim to know Kachin's troubles, young Miss?" The abbot appeared startled by Gwen's audacious claim.
"I know there are dissenters up north," Gwen teased the abbot for answers. Though she had no evidence, a hypothesis had been fermenting in her mind ever since she saw the devastation at Mandalay.
"It's true, the wet season isn't good for fighting," the monk returned. "Worry not Miss. What is your quest in Kachin State?"
"To re-open the transport routes for the mines." Gwen drew a line with her fingers. "Can you tell me about the roads? How bad are they?"
"The last shipment was four days ago," the abbot said.
"How do you know so much about Kachin?" Mayuree asked innocently. "Even I don't know anything about it."
"It's not hard to imagine." Gwen coughed, masking her white lie. "I mean, mud, rain, mountains, mines and roads in a third-world country, what else could happen?"
"My country is not... whatever that means!" Mayuree pouted. "We're reclaiming our Frontier."
"Haha." she laughed, noting that some of Mayuree's habits were starting to return. If and when they met up with Eunae's party, she would have the girl step into a dispelling mandala. Her advisor had stipulated that so long as it didn't impact their quest, there should be no dramas with the proctors. When she had disputed the delay, Walken riposted with a Chinese proverb: don't hit the grass carelessly and frighten away the snake.
"Master Abbot, have many lost their lives this season?"
"Too many." The monk grew solemn. "The mines grow hungry for lives. But the Kachin's jadeite has gotten purer and more brilliant as well. Tempting those who dream of moving to the southern city."
"How about the Tyrant, old sir?" Gwen continued. "The Arakan mountains are only a day away by Flight."
At the mention of the Tyrant's proximity, Mayuree visibly flinched, her complexion instantly blanching. Gwen reached out and patted her friend's hand assuringly.
"We haven't seen Lord Naga return to these waters for a long time," he affirmed Gwen's expectations with words distinctly different to the ones used by the abbot in Yangon. "One begins to wonder if he has forgotten his Buddha-given duty to tame the river."
"Hold on," Richard cut in. "Are you saying the Tyrant is a water-based Naga? Isn't it an earthen beast?"
"Lord Naga is the land; its body is the river, its claws are the mountain's horns, the whiskers are the great trees crowning the peaks." The monk stiffened. "Being a thing of the world, who may tell what form Lord Naga favours? Take your rest, strangers from another land, I shall leave you now."
With that, the abbot bowed, then left the team to nurse their tea.
The party members regarded one another.
"Old man's got a temper." Richard scratched his head. "I suppose with a place like this. It's easier to believe the Tyrant an angry deity than a greedy lizard. That way, they can swallow the fact that half of their country is buried and gone."
"I was going to ask about Aung San, actually," Gwen remarked. "Back in Yangon, they told me that it was Aung San that initiated trades with the Tyrant. I can't help but feel there's something we're overlooking."
"General Aung San is the reason the Tyrant took the north," Mayuree repeated an oft-heard platitude Gwen had been told a thousand times in Yangon.
Aung San, Gwen mulled the name over and over.
In her old world, Aung San was the man who brought independence to Burma, alternatingly playing the Japanese and the British against each other while fermenting a socialist force for the liberation of his nation. Ironically receiving the Order of the Rising Sun from Emperor Hirohito, Aung San then betrayed his Japanese allies by leading a joint-taskforce of Communist and British forces to repel the occupation. Unfortunately, his victory drew ire from the British, the Communists and the Japanese, and so the Major General perished- after which martial law befell Burma.
In this world, "General Aung San" was a man whose struggle was futile. Informed by hindsight from her old world, she could see how the Commonwealth's Tower system would have dissolved Aung San's desire for true independence. For a nation to succeed in this world, how can they refuse Shielding Stations, Towers, ISTC Arrays, and publically funded Spellcraft schools?
To her, the geopolitics of Mia's home was the real puzzle.
Though Mayuree's House of M hailed from the old kingdom, their rule had been usurped by the British Mageocracy. Meanwhile, Aung San fought the Mageocracy, not only from the British but from the old imperials as well. Then, between the British Mageocracy pulling out in the mid-1950s and General Aung San's contact with the Tyrant in the early 1970s, Burma lost its northern cities and provinces, including the Jade Pillar, excavated by the pre-exile House of M.
The Pillar's loss is an important distinction, for if the materials were present and the host nation could subsidise the expense, the Mageocracy would have fast-tracked the installation of the Mandalay Tower. Had Burma kept the Jade Pillar, Henry Kilroy might have graced his presence in Yangon or Mandalay. Which then left her with a million-HDM question.
Had Aung San brokered a deal with the Tyrant? If so, that's a Bingo.
It could explain why citizens in Yangon, atypically a British stronghold and the jewel of the old colony, denounced Aung San and believed the Tyrant their greatest obstacle to rebuilding, and also explain why the north looked like an abandoned stepchild.
When she excitedly explained this to Walken, her advisor had told her that indeed, her hypothesis showed a political acumen that would have impressed even a senior scholar at London's Imperial College.
"But your goal here is to gain more CCs than Seoul, Kyoto, and Jiantong- so Gwen, can you focus on what's at hand? Please don't accidentally liberate an Indochinese nation while you're questing. My heart isn't as frail as Henry's, but it's not robust by any means."
"Give it a decade or three, when you have a Tower of your own, you can fly it down to Naypyitaw and declare it a new Protectorate, but for now, keep yourself safe, and keep your hands out of someone else's internal politics."
Walken's wisdom had been enough to stifle her fancies, though when they arrived at the ruined capital of Mandalay, she couldn't help but observe that the city's disrepair was intentional. From the fact that the people here seemed utterly unfazed by the "Tyrant" flying down to raze the town with dragon fire, it was evident that an invasion was the least of their concerns.
Moreover, if she went by the cardinal rule of 'he who benefits', it was evident that the House of M reaped the highest profits out of the current situation.
But why would the House of M risk Mayuree and Gwen's prophesy? Why break the status quo? She didn't know, and for someone who liked their accounts balanced, not knowing was worse than constipation.
Then just like that, the rain stopped, the sun emerged, and humidity became an unbearable slick.
"Let's get a move on!" Richard ushered the party outside.
"Buffing up." Anita concentrated for a moment, then cast her Abjuration magic. "Crystalline Armour! Enhance Ability!"
"Right, let's make haste," Gwen affirmed the team's desire to trade speed for sight-seeing encounters.
Allowing her thoughts to slide, she lifted into the air, holding onto Mayuree, followed closely by Lulan, then Richard and Anita picking up the rear.
"Let me know when you've reached maximum velocity." Gwen made sure the others were watching before vocalising her next words. "I feel the NEED—."
"What do you need?" Lulan replied faithfully, her eyes twinkling. "I'll do anything."
"… for—" Gwen choked. "Nevermind. Let's go."
"Gwen! Slow down; look there!"
Below, glaringly visible, was a dark brown gash in the landscape.
A landslide! Gwen exalted guiltily, glad to be right but feeling downright bastardly to be happy that her foresight came true.
"I don't think this one is under our jurisdiction," Anita commented.
"Hard to say, but this IS Kachin State, and our objective is to 'complete objectives in Kachin State' and 'rally the locals'." Richard threw in his two cents. "Take a look?"
"Lowering altitude." Gwen made the call as team leader, simultaneously materialising her Invisible Familiar. "Ariel!"
As they approached, the scene of the devastation became explicit. Two dozen wooden huts among a hundred or so spread alongside a stream had been buried under a mass of earth. From every other interval, a branch or the upturned roots of an enormous Padauk or Banyan demonstrated the unstoppable force of savage nature.
When the Mages had gotten close enough, several figures stirred from the mud, and dozens more emerged from huts yet to be submerged.
"Mia, stay behind me." Gwen grew conscious of the crystalline armour surrounding her torso, making her appear decisively aggressive. "Anita, can you suppress the armour for now? I'll be fine."
Their defender performed as her leader requested.
"Hail, we're Mages from Shanghai, and we're here to help," Gwen declared with a blast from her Clarion Call. "When did this happen?"
The audience below bowed their heads, then fell onto their knees into the mud.
"Mia, what are they doing?"
"I don't know." Mayuree appeared perplexed as well.
"Looks like they're kowtowing," Richard remarked drily. "Are these the indigenous people of Chin State that we've heard about?"
"Gwen!" Mayuree suddenly stopped. "I don't think some of them are human! Mana signatures indicate some of them have Cores!"
The team tensed. Besides Richard, Lea sprung into being.
"Raise your faces!" Gwen commanded, hoping her Ioun Stone worked on Demi-humans as advertised. She could see that the villagers had been trying to dig out their neighbours, but it would appear the loss of the village hall also meant the loss of relevant tools, as well as the local shaman.
"I don't know about this." Anita readied a barrier. "We're not here to save Demi-humans."
Lulan kept a Heart Seeking Sword simmering at the edge of her lips, paralleling Anita's conjecture.
The leading figure pulled back a ragged, mud-strewn cowl to reveal a young man's face. It was human enough, Gwen acknowledged- until she saw his single-slit eyes, that and subtle scales covering his chin and neck where a human would grow a beard.
"Wow." Richard whistled. "Serpent-folk, never seen those before."
"Cannibals," Anita spat. "We read about them in the Bestiary."
"Hold your positions," Gwen snapped. "Richard, get Lea to cover me. You guys stay here. Ariel, with me. Mia, use Comprehend Language and translate for me if they don't speak the local tongue."
As her team took up positions, Gwen descended.
"What's happened?" She arrived a few inches from the mud. "Is this your village?"
"It ith," the serpent man spoke with, as expected, an occasional lisp. "The Land God is angry with us, not enough tribute, dethtroy village, many deaths. Please help us, great Mithtriss. Though I fear we have nothing to offer but prayerth for your good health."
By now the others had also removed their cowls, evidently used to ward off the water. Almost immediately, like many a scene from a disaster flick, the survivors congregated toward hope, no matter how feeble or futile. From where she hovered, it was evident that most of them were human, or human-enough, as it were, to pass unnoticed in Mandalay. Only a few, like the young man, possessed enough reptilian features to be Demi-Humans, potentially a sign of the Tyrant's Essence permeating the land.
"Gwen, we don't have time to spare." Anita's voice came through Mayuree's routed Message service, calmer now that most of the citizens appeared to be indigenous NoMs. "The rain will come soon."
"There are others, still buried." Another survivor, visibly the village's alderman, glowed with hope. He lowered his head in genuflection. "Please show mercy, Mistress."
"It's because the rain will come that we must help," Gwen said aloud. She knew it was better that they leave right now, but she had no desire to abandon these people to wallow in desperation. "Is there anyone here who can use magic?"
"None, Mistress Mage." The slit-eyed young man once again got on all fours, urging the others to do the same. "Our abbot has perished. The temple was buried."
"We should go." Anita's voice grew urgent even as the villagers despaired.
"Alright, form up! Follow my command." Gwen's commanding voice absolved any need for further discussion. "We're doing what we can! Consider this practice. Lulan, I want a sloped and cantilevered wall of earth around the village's rear from the north-east to the south-west boundary, a meter minimum to help divert the runoff toward the river. Richard and Anita- start excavating the buried huts. Drain the mud to make retaining back-fill for Lulan's wall. Lea and Mia, you're with me; we're going to look for survivors."
She landed with a plop, her boots digging ankle-deep into the squelching mud. In the next moment, her eyes blazed with emerald Essence.
"Alright everyone, back to your huts. I am going to conjure some help."
While Gwen usually utilised her Lightning element, her Hound Pack and Blood Hound spell retained the ability to bring forth the original conjuration.
When six draconic-deer hounds the size of small horses materialised, the inhabitants of the unnamed village fled back into their huts, leaving only the old man and the reptilian youth to gape at the quasi-magical beasts. When furthermore a brilliant Kirin and a strange, nauseating ophidian joined the fray, the young and old cowered on the floor, muttering prayers to Buddha.
With Mayuree's Arcane Eye and Caliban's life-sniffing as a guide, the dogs began to furiously overturn the loosened earth, parting sediments and boulders, splitting trees with their bites and dragging bodies from crushed homes and humpies.
Anita began her excavation too, uncovering the shattered portions of the village, forming piles of mud that crawled across the landscape while Lulan erected coarse iron barriers from the mineral-rich earth beneath in the design that Gwen had demanded. Aided by Richard, who diverted the squelching water and wrung the moisture from the soil, the trio made quick progress in erecting a flood barrier where the village's border met the hill's saddle.
When it became apparent the foreigners meant the villagers no harm, the surviving members reemerged to aid with the effort, moving piles of debris and dragging the bodies of the deceased away so that they could be recognised.
"Gwen, over here!" Mayuree called out suddenly, her eyes alive with excitement. "There's someone alive! We need to hurry!"
Gwen's hounds furiously went to work, tearing through the earth while Lea helped with the shifting soil until they uncovered the mud-brick foundations of a basement. Taking advantage of her liquid state, Lea squeezed into the gap between the crumbling brickwork and retrieved, after a blow from Gwen's alpha hound, two children and their mud-clad, asphyxiated mother.
"Cao!" Anita inspected the mother, having had some experience in the military. "We're too late."
The children, wild-eyed and disorientated, burst into tears at the sight of monsters dragging their mother's body.
As for Gwen, she knelt into the mud and performed her own inspection. The woman's skin was warm to the touch despite the hypothermia, from Caliban. she noted a mote of vitality remained.
With a word, she dispelled her Crystalline Mage Armour and un-clicked her combat mesh, then knelt to place two hands on the woman's chest. After three dozen compressions aided by her enhanced strength, she pulled the mother's head back and delivered two lungfuls of air. When after two repetitions the woman failed to revive, she materialised a potion injector and stabbed the woman just under her breasts.
Then, with renewed vigour, she pounded at the mother's heart, pushed with both hands for another thirty compressions, and began the rescue-breaths anew.
"What's she doing?" Richard grew as puzzled as the rest of the team.
The villagers likewise gathered to watch the strange spectacle, drawing the children away from the peculiar Mage and most importantly, her Asura monstrosities.
Ignoring hundred-odd pairs of eyes, Gwen felt for the woman's pulse again.
"SHIT!" She cursed. Anita was right, if they had been a little faster, or if she had not bothered with conserving her combat potential and conjured her Void-dogs or empowered Caliban-
Unsure what else to do and willing to try anything, she gathered a mote of Almudj's Essence on her tongue, then gave in to a moment of spontaneity. With the next compression done, she breathed her Essence, along with a life-giving breath, into the woman's lungs.
Wake up! The woman's chest inflated under Gwen's fingers. Live! Else your kids would be orphans!
The body underneath her suddenly shuddered.
"NECROMANCY?!" Anita spluttered, leaping back a safe distance.
Richard's eyes were likewise widened in disbelief, echoing that of Lulan and Mayuree's. The woman was dead, wasn't she? Anita had said so. How could Gwen bring the dead back to life by breathing into them and pounding at their chest? Was this a new form of Raise Dead?
"It's CPR." Gwen collapsed on her buttocks, but not before turning the woman on her side. Taking a deep breath, she addressed Anita's hypothesis. "She was near death, not dead. No one can bring back the dead like that. Lea, can you dry her out?"
"Tell it to the walking corpse." Anita swallowed nervously. "I don't think the others will believe this. That NoM was dead as a plank of wood. Trust me, I know. There was no breath."
Meanwhile, the woman vomited up a mouthful of mud and silt, spraying mucous here and there.
"She'll be alright, but she'll be out for a while," Gwen explained. Unlike in a movie, fever, disorientation, confusion and delirium afflicted the victim of asphyxiation. Often, there was permanent brain damage. "You there, warm her up and get her to vomit up whatever else she can."
But the villagers weren't listening.
As one, they had begun a wave of willing prostration.
"Buddha! It's she who cures the world of dukka!" The village alderman declared loudly. "All hail the incarnation of Lord Bhaiṣajyaguru!"
Gwen lifted a mud-clad hand to refute the claim. She was six-foot in a skin-tight bodysuit half-covered with mud, with only her soiled face showing, not to mention she had a full head of hair tied into a bun. What part of her looked like a saffron-clad Buddha carrying a medicine gourd, sitting on a jade lotus?
"Looks like we have a new deity on our hands." Richard laughed, happy that the villagers had become pliant, reminding himself to ask Gwen about that revival technique. "Gwen, who brings the newly dead back from the grave!"
"Please don't," Gwen groaned. "Mayuree, was that all you could find?"
Mayuree nodded, shocked by what she had just witnessed.
"Anita, Lulu, the wall?"
"It's finished." Anita bowed her head reverently.
Lulan gushed in full agreement.
"Righto." Gwen got to her feet, uncomfortable with the worshipful gazes. "We should go."