Before they left, the village alderman sent away the young man to fetch a token for the village's saviours.
"Please take this, Lord Bhaiṣajyaguru." The two prostrated. "Should the others turn against you, show them this and our kin will know that you have saved our lives in this time of need."
Gwen observed the jade pendant, meticulously carved with the image of a Buddha riding on a Naga of some sort. From what she could see, the quality of the jadeite was exquisite, for half of it glowed shallot-green while the other half had the richness of lamb's fat.
"I can't." She shook her head, pushing it away. "It's too precious."
"You must." The two prostrated once more, raising the item like an offering. "The food you have left us more than makes up for this small thing. As Buddha preaches: the karma from saving one life exceeds dedicating a seven-tier stupa."
Earlier, Gwen had also left the village a portion of her SPAM collection, some forty cans worth, together with instant ramen. Nephres' ring was large enough to stow a pallet of canned goods. After her other mishaps involving Void-hunger, Gwen promised to live by Scarlett O'Hara's creed.
"Gwen, take it." Richard was shameless.
"You saved her. You deserve it." Mayuree appraised the composite jadeite carving. "It's the villager's well-wishes you are receiving. The jade isn't that precious."
Reaching out gingerly, Gwen allowed the alderman to wrap the jade pendant around her wrist.
"Thank you." She made a note to stow it in her ring. "Take care."
After leaving the kowtowing villagers, Gwen once again resumed her place at the fore of the formation, equipped with a newly buffed crystalline armour. She had half a mind to give a little speech about how well they did, but her party had Necromancy on the brain.
She did her best to explain cardiopulmonary resuscitation, but she couldn't recall if this world had such a thing. CPR had been developed in her old world by the American Heart Association in 1956, but in a world of rejuvenation and regeneration treatments, why would Mages care for CPR? It was only her Master, who had literally and metaphorically lost a good chunk of his heart to his wife, that seemed to struggle with arrhythmia. As for the medical science passed down to the NoMs, she had no idea if somewhere across the ocean someone had gifted the life-saving technique to the masses, for no resuscitation routines had graced her first-aid classes in Blackwattle or Fudan. The last person she had performed CPR on had been Debora—
Gwen stifled a gag, suppressing the memory.
"Gwen." It was Anita who Messaged her privately. "I am glad we helped that village."
Anita had donated some of her supply as well, her calcite encrusted heart growing soft as the children thanked them and the adults wept.
"Don't mention it." Gwen redoubled Ariel's forward momentum. "Let's hope La War's doing better."
By dusk, the light grew too dim to continue travelling, for the inundation of low clouds meant a dearth of stars, preventing meaningful navigation, not to mention the forest's denizens were principally nocturnal. Though Mayuree could potentially use her Divination to steer them in the right direction, the Mages were exhausted and tired from seven hours of flight, four of which had been spent in the downpour.
Alighting on a clearing amidst a cascade of Dancing Lights, Flare, and Illumination, the students found shelter in an alcove provided by a Banyan tree's walled roots. Atop the indent that held their Portable Habitat, Gwen left a Faithful Hound, while around the place Mayuree placed Alarms and Anita drew crystalline Warding Glyphs.
"We'll leave first light, 0600," Gwen informed the others. "As for now, who can cook?"
Richard was the only one to raise his hand.
Gwen was a calamitous chef, and Mayuree had never cooked in her life. As for Anita and Lulan, both declined the opportunity to poison their teammates.
"Seriously?" Richard scratched his head. "What do you guys eat if you're adventuring alone?"
"SPAM boiled in water," Gwen proudly boasted of her resistance to toxins. "You can dunk bread rolls in the meat water…"
The team gagged, happy to let Richard work his magic.
Anita, Richard and Lulan each had a room of their own, but for Gwen's paranoia, Mayuree slept with her in the master bedroom. Thus enfolded in Gwen's thousand-threaded sheets, the Diviner passed the night restlessly, quaking when Gwen wrapped a restless leg around her diminutive companion, terrifying the girl with the unsolicited invasion.
A 0500, the party made and ate breakfast prepared by Richard, then set out once more. During the night, Gwen's faithful hound had slain at least a dozen snakes of varying sizes drawn to the thrum of faint mana where the portal to the habitat manifested. Additionally, a family of White-Leaf Macaques, primates native to the Yunnan region, had set up above the student's encampment, curious but wary of the invisible guardian.
The group set out again at 0600 as planned, taking advantage of the lull in the weather. An hour and close to eighty kilometres later, the wet caught up, cutting their speed in half. Following another three hours of near-typhoon conditions, the Fudan Party finally spotted the beginnings of the plateau they would call home for the next ten days - La War.
From above, La-War looked like any other village large enough to grace a mention on the topographic map. Sitting atop a series of hills that made up the surrounding region, its founders had taken advantage of the natural clearing formed by jutting outcrops of igneous rocks, then slashed-and-burned through the surrounding jungle to enable pebbled paths connecting the hundred-odd or so houses to an arterial roadway below the valley.
The residences on the outskirts of the village were a composite of bamboo and banana thatch, elevated on wooden stilts, while the wealthier, larger constructs consisted of corrugated iron and concrete plasterboards in green and carmine. In the centre of the village was presumably the town's hall, two storeys tall and painted a brilliant cerulean. All along the border of the township were thick rolls of brambles new and old, forming a formidable barrier against the local fauna.
Below the brown and barren hill-scape of the village itself was a cascading tier of rice fields carved into the hill, twenty-deep at its very bottom, where lapping waters met a gushing stream.
"We're students from Fudan!" Gwen declared several times before her party alighted in the square. "We're acting on behalf of your government's request for aid."
Gathered at the square, consisting of a tennis-court-sized plateau beside the hall, was the village's longyi-attired alderman, together with a group of young women adorned with patterned thanaka. As the Mages landed, the villagers prostrated.
"Please, there's no need." Gwen landed in the mud with a wet, sucking sound as the soil gave way. "No! Don't kneel! Go inside! Inside!"
The hall's interior consisted of a double-storey covered courtyard, then a converted loft where the Mages may rest if they chose to humble themselves, as well as what passed for a shrine paying homage to an unknown Buddha, besides which sat a nine-headed jadestone Naga.
"Master and Mistresses." The alderman kowtowed, ignoring Gwen's protest. "Welcome you to La War. I have readied warm meals and baths if that is what you desire."
"That would be lovely. Your name, sir?"
"Please call this one Shwe, Mistress."
"Righto, Shwe. I am Gwen. This is Richard. That's Anita, and over there is Mayuree and Lulan." Gwen decided getting to the business end of things was likely for the best. "Please tell me about the village. How big is it, how many people there are. How many work for the mines. And what's happened so far since the monsoon started."
The Mages took their seats in what looked like a meeting room. The alderman remained at attention, commanding the young men and women to bring towels and tea.
"We are a village of eight hundred and seventy-two, Mistress Gwen, including the children." The alderman appeared not to know who Mayuree was, which suited Gwen just fine. "The La War jade quarry is five kilometres from here. We are an open quarry, so the rain has not given us too much trouble. About half of our people work there. Manager Mingyi lives on top of the mine itself, overseeing the operation and defending it against poachers."
"Poachers?" Gwen raised a brow.
"Rogue miners, Mistress." The man nodded. "They have their uses during the dry season, but when they are desperate, they will try to steal raw jade stones at night. It's not so unusual to find a few that have slipped and lost their lives. During the wet season, many fall to their death; others drown in the pits."
The party grimaced.
"Any major incidents so far? Landslides or other geological incidents?"
"We were waiting for your esteemed arrival to clear several blockades formed by the rain, Mistress," the alderman affirmed her hypothesis. "That and we are harassed by rebels now and then, who flee into the mountains after stealing supplies."
"Rebels?" Richard snorted. "Working for whom?"
"For Aung San." The alderman gave Richard a peculiar glance. "They have fortifications in the Arakan mountains, west of Kachin."
"Ah." Gwen nodded. "What can you tell me about this Aung San?"
"Not much, Mistress," the man said. "The General has not been seen for many years, but occasionally, we get raiding parties who disrupt our mining and raid our village."
"What makes you think they're Aung San's forces?" Gwen asked. "The General hasn't been seen since almost thirty years ago, right?"
"Who else would attack us?" The alderman's expression appeared offended, as though Gwen was asking if Buddha truly saves. "The Masters from Yangon have assured us that they will keep Aung San in check, though the occasional party slips past the border patrols."
What patrols? Gwen exchanged a look with Richard. From Mandalay to Kachin, it was nothing but jungle.
"Mayuree, any ideas?"
Her expatriate friend shook her head. She wasn't privy to the Burmese operations of the House of M.
"Thank you, alderman." Gwen turned her attention back to the old man. "Please be at ease. We will rest for a short while, then go and inspect these collapsed roads. I have a feeling there's likely more work once we get to the mine as well."
"Of course, Mistress. Please rest well."
The alderman left the Mages in a hurry, leaving the girls behind as servants.
"Hello, what's your name?" Gwen said to one of the girls.
"…" the girl quailed.
"Ariel." Gwen conjured her secret weapon.
"Eee!" Ariel appeared with a flash, swishing its tail adorably.
"Aeeeee! Buddha protects!"
"A monster! Don't eat us!"
The girls fled.
"Hahaha…" Richard burst into laughter. "Good work. I wanted some quiet, and you've managed just that."
Gwen bit her lips.
"Don't worry bud, it's not you," she assured her Kirin, who looked offended.
Meantime, the downpour continued to bucket down, drumming on the tin room with the cacophony of someone pouring a semi's load of loose gravel.
"Let's dry out." Gwen produced a magic cube for dehydrating laundry. "I might take up that bath."
"Lord Mages!" The alderman stumbled into the room, noting that only Richard sat in the middle of the converted loft. "It's terrible! We need your aid! Where are the wo- the Mistresses?"
"I'll get them." Richard cocked his head at the alderman, studying the man's panic to ensure his distress was genuine. Satisfied, he fired off a Message. "Alright, they're coming. What's wrong?"
"Something's happened to the stream!" the man blustered, spraying spittle all over Richard. "It's gone! Just gone!"
Gwen and the girls emerged after a few minutes in their magically laundered skin-suits, making the alderman avert his eyes.
"Where's it all happening?"
"Just upstream. Please do something. Hurry!"
Anita raised a finger to berate the bellicose old man, but Gwen interposed with a pat on the shoulder, calling Ariel to her side.
"Should all of us go?" Mayuree asked.
"We're going together," Gwen affirmed.
Upon arrival, it became evident that the alderman's woes were well-founded, as the quickened stream that had swiftly surged only hours prior had now dwindled until it was at half. Considering the deluge that even now flowed into the canal, it was self-evident that something had blocked the stream further up, building up potential energy somewhere out of sight.
"If this were Nantong, I would be advising we evacuate about now." Richard drew from a wealth of his experience working in construction for the past year. "My suggestion is we put up barriers and blockages to disrupt and disperse the flow."
"Agreed." Gwen flew into the air to survey the surroundings. Under the persistent downpour, the vista of the village had the likeness of a Monet masterpiece. "Let's have retaining barriers starting from the right bank, half a kilometre wide, diverting to the left. We need to spread the momentum of whatever is coming down over a large surface area. Lulu, what do you think?"
"I can try putting up those diamond-shaped wave breakers like the ones in Nantong."
"You beauty. Anita, you're reinforcing Lulan's obstructions with whatever you can dredge up. Richard, see how much of the silt you can flush out of that stream."
"What about me?" Mayuree asked.
"Stay here, let everyone know, and keep your Scry active. If you see something coming, get the hell out."
"How about you?"
"I am heading upstream with my dogs." Gwen did her best to disregard the water stream down her face and into her mouth. "If I can find out what's blocking the river, maybe a wide-area Barbanginy will reduce whatever's coming down next."
"Alright," Richard noted the efficacy of Gwen's task-arrangement. "Take care, and D-D back if there are Monsters."
"Will do," Gwen said. "Mia, stay close to Richard."
"I'll take care of her," Richard passed his cousin a subtle acknowledgement.
"Okay!" Mayuree nodded, looking decidedly nervous without Gwen nearby.
"Sir Mages, the rice fields…" The alderman was struggling under the weight of the water pouring from the heavens, drenching his conical hat.
"Old feller." Richard's stood between the alderman and the girls as they set to work, with Lea forming an umbrella screen to ward away the water. "I don't think you have time to be worrying about your fields. Not when your village could be the next thing to go. Let's get some heads together, and I'll tell you how to keep everyone safe."
This time, Gwen spared no expense in deploying her resources.
From Wikipedia and Nat-Geo documentaries, not to mention her old Geography teacher, Mr Ayres, she tried to recall what she could. There was abrasion, which pointed to damage dealt by boulders; attrition, meaning something wore out the banks; and hydraulic action, which pointed to water erosion. From the looks of the mountain stream, it was evident that some sort of collapse was inevitable as the villagers had left nature to take its course.
As her Lightning Hounds discharged when encased in water, it was up to her Void Hounds to do the job. Compared to the non-elemental variation, the slavering netherworld mouth-on-legs were far more adept at eating through obstacles, be it trees, rocks, monsters or otherwise. Furthermore, even if they were injured, she could revitalise about half their number before her vitality ran into the red.
As for her Familiars, she kept Ariel hovering above to ward off the rain while Caliban lurked, invisible but for the persistent drizzle.
After passing the village's clearing, the landscape sloped upwards. Where the water in the stream had reduced, Gwen could see the imperilled banks crumbing like waterlogged fondant, with networks of old roots exposed and torn by boulders propelled through the water. Here and there, jagged granite deposits the size of cars validated her fears.
Her attempt at slicing the boulders met with another expectation versus reality lesson of life. Void Chakram couldn't be used in heavy rain. The water consumed her paper-thin disks.
Along the way, she encountered the occasional over-ambitious mudskipper, a dozen goblin-like, fish-faced Demi-humans she couldn't identify, a giant salamander creature that fled with surprising speed, and a ten-meter boa that tried to have a go at one of her hounds. More fortuitously, the eroded river revealed a century-old snapper-turtle that attempted to ambush her, only to be dragged out of the mud by her dogs.
Naturally, whatever Caliban and or her dogs ensnared fed her vitality, restoring what she had expended. The snapper, in particular, had a nourishing essence. Her only regret was that without Percy, no Core had survived, leaving no tangible resource to be collected.
After half-an-hour of leading her dogs through the slog, she reached the source of La War's woe.
As expected, a natural levee had formed upstream, ten-meters wide and then some, created by collated trees, leaves, mud and shifting soil catching an exposed escarpment where normally the stream cascaded freely. Thankfully, the rainfall had by now grown sparse, affording Gwen enough visibility to figure out a viable solution.
But when her dogs scampered up the waterlogged plateau, they were met with a burst of magic—
— followed by the distinct sound of an elementally-induced blast.
A wave of cold permeated atop the dam. One of Gwen's hounds had instantly expired.
Suddenly livid and smarting with sensory feedback, Gwen hastened her ascent, rising above the barrier with a combination of Jump and Flight.
"YOU!" she howled at the sight of a familiar face.
"YOU?!" The face of Lee Si-won, Vice Captain to Seoul U, stared back at her. "You're the source of those abominations?"
But Gwen wasn't interested in the Korean Vice Captain.
She was gazing with trembling outrage at the sight of the frigid water sloshing atop an enormous, near-overflowing bank of ice, frozen in place so as to collate into an ever-growing pool.
SO THAT's why the river dried up! She immediately recalled what Tei had told her about Seoul's favourite methodology, that winning isn't about winning, but instead having your opponent's fail. Had Seoul known about the landscape and the topography of the villages? Was that why they left so early from Mandalay, going so far as to burn HDMs to mitigate the rain?
"Ssi-bal!" Si-won swore, kicking into action without a second word. "Creeping Ice!"
But it wasn't Caliban who came on first, but Gwen's hounds, yelping and yapping as they skittered across the thinly formed ice, slavering with grey goo. Si-won's frost-laden AOE caught the first two dogs as they entered its range, freezing their paws to the water, but the remaining few skittered across the rime.
"D-Dimension Door!" Si-won reappeared some hundred-odd meters away.
Gwen was in no mood to see the culprit escape. She wanted to drag the man back to base camp, and pending on the bastard's honesty, maybe even have Richard work the prick under with a Lea special.
With a Dimension Door of her own, she and two of her dogs appeared less than a metre away, quicker than Si-won could re-orientate his bearings. A splash of tenebrous, nauseating Void-ink splattered all about them, sizzling the ground and consuming all that came into contact. Though the well-trained Acolyte immediately erected a Shield, the unexpected offensive teleport had caught him unaware, sending out a jolt of reactive mana as the defensive spells woven into the fabric activated.
"Taser!" Gwen's low level spells now possessed near-instantaneous activation. She lashed Si-won's shield several times in quick succession while her dogs bit and clawed its surface, surprised that they failed to penetrate an Evoker's shield.
"Dimension Door!" Si-won made another desperate teleportation back to base.
"Ariel! Ball Lightning!"
This time, she allowed four orbs to chase down the escaping Evoker before Teleporting in herself to once again close-in with Si-won, knowing that Seoul U's Vice Captain's best spells were all mid-range AOEs.
"Shield!" Si-won could do nothing as the deerhounds continued their hunt, covering the distance of a hundred meters in a matter of seconds. Meanwhile, a spider-form Caliban, Hastened and terrible, leapt from tree to tree, aiming for any lapse in his judgement.
When he reappeared, the orbs also reached their destination, detonating with terrific force, stripping away his defences.
"Icy Eruption!" Si-won pointed a finger some distance away.
"Lightning Bolt!" Gwen exchanged spells with her opponent, though it seemed she wasn't the target of Si-won's newest assault.
Her bolt caught the Mage in the chest, sending the man staggering backwards. To her wide-eyed surprise, he remained standing.
The ice dam erupted with a terrific noise as a tectonic volume of half-congealed water began to shift.
Her Divination Sigil pinged.
The feeling of foreshadowing she had felt since seeing the icy levee erupted. She realised with growing dread what Si-won had in store for her friends below. "Caliban, keep him occupied!"
She Dimension Doored away from the target of her ire to inspect the damage afflicting the debris-strewn blockade. When she arrived above the Korean-made beaver dam, she could see that the ice magic holding it in place had been withdrawn and that its structural integrity was disintegrating.
"Fuck!" she called Ariel to her side. If that morass of ice and mud picked up momentum, it would take out half the fucking village.
But what could she do? She wasn't a Water Mage, and so she couldn't divert the stream. She wasn't an Earthen Mage, and so she couldn't erect a barrier to hold the dam. At a time like this, an artillery-Mage like herself was helpless. Against the relentless physics of the natural world, even Barbanginy was no more effective than a low-tier Bolt.
"Shaaa!" Caliban's cry came across her Empathic Link. It and the dogs had injured their prey, but then Si-won had disappeared; likely propelled by some defensive item to safety. She commanded her creatures to return, then made a quick calculation for the trip back to La War.
She could at best manage two-hundred meters per Dimension Door, and she had at least five kilometres through dense woodland to cover before she could message Mayuree. If she averaged five Dimension Doors per kilometre to make the exhaustive distance, it meant twenty-five continuous casts before she was in range.
The dam gave in to its momentum.
The time for doubt was over.
The Void sorceress vanished in a flash of thunder and lightning.