By the twentieth Dimension Door, Gwen's vision started to see stars.
A forceful circulation of Almudj's Essence brought her rebellious innards into obedience; then she flew for the next minute before activating another five instances of her short-range teleportation.
"Mayuree!" her voice roared across the Diviner's projected network. "There's a mudslide incoming! You've got two to three minutes at best!"
"Did you blow the blockage?" Richard's voice came through.
"My Divination is going off like crazy!" Mayuree informed her. "Did you do something?"
"Not me, it's Seoul U, they're trying to rat-fuck us!" Her tone communicated both her anger and her urgency. "Get barriers up; we need to divert this thing. Sacrifice a portion of the village if you have to, get everyone to move up to the central hall!"
"Alright, you heard her," Richard commanded the others. "Shwe, get a move on! Lulan, Anita, you're with me. Mayuree, make sure everyone in the village knows!"
Meanwhile, Gwen lifted into the air, thankful that the rain had slowed to a thankful drizzle. From her topographic vantage, she could see the movement of the debris bearing down on them merely by tracking the trees being pulled into the undertow as the massive morass of sediments roved across the old riverbed. Whatever was coming was picking up speed and momentum with all the impatience afforded by gravity, taking every advantage of the shallow topsoil.
"Scratch that, you've got three minutes!"
"Get back here!" Richard informed her. "I need your Barbanginy."
Another half-dozen Dimension Doors later, she reappeared pale and disorientated, a hundred meters atop the now chaotic village, watching its denizens milling about like headless chooks.
Lulan had constructed two dozen diamond-shaped breakers at the village's eastern border, where the river flowed downhill through the rice fields. In the worst-case scenario, half of the structures should survive the incoming mudslide, though the rice field below looked to be the ultimate victim of Seoul U's ploy. As much as Gwen loathed Si-won, it seemed mass murder wasn't his first intention, though the avoidance of collateral damage certainly wasn't weighing on Seoul's morality scale.
"What's she doing?" Gwen asked as Richard approached, his complexion flushed from exertion.
Behind him, Anita was excavating something at the eastern border, widening a gap in the earth.
"Lea says there's an underground cavern below the eastern edge," her cousin explained. "I want you to collapse the top for us so that when the flood arrives, it'll go into the crevasse."
"Is that safe?" Gwen baulked at the possibility of an even bigger landslide as a result of tens of thousands of tons of water and mud gushing into the hill's midst.
"At worst, this half of the village will sink." Richard pointed from the first hut to the tiered rice fields. "Careless hydro farming has hollowed out the limestone bedrock; we should explain to the aldermen that it was going to happen sooner or later."
"Bloody hell," Gwen spat. Reconstruction wasn't a responsibility with which a team stationed for ten days could be or should be saddled. "Those bastards..."
"Don't lose your cool." Richard patted her on the head. "I would have recommended the same. If we too had a geographical advantage, it will take a fool not to make use of it. We'll lose a portion of the village, but the people are safe, and rebuilding isn't impossible."
Gwen forcibly rescinded the impulse pressing against the inside of her skull.
"Hmm, it's close," Richard remarked as the puddles began to ripple chaotically.
Indeed, the land beneath their feet was humming with energy now, sending the villagers into a blind panic. Were it not for Mayuree's village-wide instruction to flee to the hall; the likelier outcome would have been a hundred or more rubberneckers staring at the riverbed, scratching their heads and wondering why the huts were trembling.
"INCOMING!" Lulan leapt from one of her recently finished diamond-barriers to take a better gander. "Mao! It's huge!"
"I am done!" Anita likewise flew into the air; her Mage Armour covered with silt and mud. "I've widened the chasm. Gwen, do your worst!"
"Wait, see how Lulu's barriers do," Richard informed Lea to be ready to redirect the incoming tide. "If—"
The wall of mud, boulders, branches and uprooted Banyans struck the mounts of earth strengthened by Lulan's iron with a tectonic force. Under the mass of such unfathomable pressure, her diamond-shaped barriers folded like origami, eliciting a gasp of dismay from the wide-eyed Sword Mage.
"Well, shit." Richard, who had seen the Nantong Engineers work their magic, now realised there was far more to engineering than met the eye. "Gwen!"
The Void sorceress focused her latent energies, tapping all available mana from her Gate of Lightning, pumping pure power through her conduits.
"Ariel!" she commanded her Kirin, then charged it with as much Essence as she could humanly muster without popping a cranial artery.
In the next instant, the mudflow cleared half of Lulan's barriers, then bore down on the village like a dark tsunami, staggering the very hill upon which La War made its home.
Lulan blinked beside Gwen, ready to take her friend to safety should the need arise. Anita lifted herself upward so that she was out of reach of the mud-flow below. Richard meanwhile, poured his mana into Lea, emptying a pressurised deluge of streaming white-water into the crevasse Anita had made earlier.
"Thundering Shatter!" Gwen invoked another unique spell gifted to her by Walken. An invocation designed for Air Mages but adapted by the Magister for use with the Lightning element.
Combined with the power of her Almudj's Essence, the shattering force of the fulminating spell made the earth beneath them jump, shaking plates and clattering chopsticks, freeing spades from anchored racks.
There was a brief lull in the noise as their ears rung with tinnitus, then an enormous gash opened across the village's eastern escarpment, followed by thunderous rumbling as the entirety of La War's eastern boundary began to split and part from its granite foundations.
From above, a cascade of brown sludge, having consumed Lulan's barriers, raced over the hill, funnelling into the river bed, quickening the collapse of the surface, engendering a crashing waterfall down through the cavern below.
Gwen and the party retreated through the air, grim-faced and tired as dogs as the low rumble of falling earth continued unabated for several minutes, filling the gorge below with debris while up top, the overflow decimated the prized rice fields the village had tendered for decades.
The villagers, having born witness to the destruction of their home, had not expected the hill itself to give way, taking with it their tiered and tiled livelihood. As the first few minutes of stunned silence passed, they burst into tears, fell to their knees, and began to weep uncontrollably.
Their summer harvest was gone!
For the simple folk of the mountain: food security ruled over all. As labourers and farmers, they cared not for international competitions, dragons, nor the pride of national institutions of study. With the rice fields intact, they would survive and maybe even thrive. With it gone, they would starve.
"O, Lord Buddha have mercy… have mercy!" The alderman led the village in spontaneous prayer. It was all good and well that they had survived, but what about the winter to come? There wasn't enough time left to plant a new batch!
As for the party from Fudan, the Mages took the lull in the action to recover some of their mana.
Below, the landslide had gone on its merry way, diverted by Richard's quick thinking, gone to plague whoever was downstream, ripping through Kachin's sloped valleys with renewed vigour.
"Is it over?" Gwen swallowed, happy at least that there wasn't choking dust thanks to the sudden atmosphere.
"It's over." Richard gave her a reassuring squeeze on the arm. "Fuck me, that almost had us dead and buried."
"Gwennie!" Lulan hugged her arm, trembling uncontrollably. For a second there, she'd imagined herself jumping at the mud, cleaving it apart with her sword. That would have been very foolish, and short-lived attempt at being useful.
"Cao!" Anita was covered from head to toe with cold sweat, drenching her skin-suit. "Mao's tomb, my whole body hurts, and I am not even injured."
"Is everyone alright?" Mayuree rejoined the party. "The villagers are accounted for, but…"
"If everyone's alive, that's good enough for now," Gwen answered pragmatically, sensing a new ire rise in her chest. "Let's settle things with the village; then we'll discuss Seoul U."
After almost an hour wasted assuring the alderman that help would arrive in ten days in the form of food, supplies and Mages, the villager's worst fears were laid to rest. Seizing the opportunity, Gwen then willed a mote of Essence into her being and pacified the crowd by stating that the great sacrifice of rice had now placated the mountain spirits.
To further hearten the peasants that they would be alright, Gwen deposited a hundred HDMs into an urn which she then gifted to the alderman for his quick thinking in saving the village, instantly bringing the labourers back to their side and absolving the future drama that would have followed had the mine's workers turned against the students. With funding, she explained, they could buy plants and equipment, not to mention rice for the winter and new rice for planting in spring. As Buddha wills, she told them, their misfortune shall herald a better tomorrow.
"What now?" Anita brooded darkly, glancing toward the north. By the time she and Lulan had reinforced the new landscape as best as they could, it was already night. "Gwen, we can't just let this go."
"Of course not." Gwen sat cross-legged in a singlet and running shorts, fanning her legs with a scented banana leaf. "First thing tomorrow I am going to head toward Mogaung and contact the Kyoto team. I'll convince them that working together against Seoul will be for the benefit of the locals, as well as each of us. For all we know, Seoul may have made a move against them as well."
"What about Jiantong?"
"Jiantong is an unknown. If I can get Kyoto on our side, Jiantong can either play ball or get rat-fucked by Seoul. Neither of their captains seems the trustworthy kind."
"Ha!" Lulan puffed. "Oh, I shouldn't laugh."
"Laugh! Laugh all you want. We'll have the last laugh!" Gwen growled. "I still can't believe we almost lost the bloody village. Imagine that, our IIUC could have been over just like that."
"You have no idea," Richard butted in with a horrifying hypothesis. "If I were Sung Lee, I wouldn't be unleashing the mudslide in broad daylight."
"…" The rest party sat with their mouths open, unable to fathom such brazen ruthlessness.
"Those bangzi arseholes!" Anita made her opinion known.
"Pretty sure it's just the Lees," Gwen muttered. Indeed, the Machiavellian accomplishments of Korea's Chaebol were legendary in her old world. For a world of magic and monsters, where those with power and influence ruled unconstrained by the rule of Law, she could only imagine what little regard the princelings possessed for the lives of several hundred third-world villagers.
"Want me to come with?" Richard stretched, lying down so that his head rested on her thigh comfortably. He met her eyes, appeasing some of her anger. "If Jiro was here, he could probably build some rapport for you with their Kotodama guy."
"That's the one." Richard closed his eyes to rest. "We shouldn't remain only on defence though. Maybe a little offensive of our own? Slaughtering each other's villagers will likely fail the quest outright. I think Seoul was trying to instigate a little 'accident', something like unforeseen collateral damage. Which means we could likewise prevent their progress, so long as the villagers are safe. Didn't you say Ariel could speak to Wildland beasts?"
"They sort of pantomime while I guess the content, its charades all the way," Gwen confessed.
"Remember that horde of monkeys we saw? The one waving at us and throwing fruit?"
"Richard, that wasn't fruit-"
"Well, their diet must be high in fruit-fibre. I reckon you have something they'd want."
Richard grinned. "Assuming these are Leaf-Macaques, they won't be able to resist a good bottle of booze."
"Ah…" Gwen realised what Richard was getting at. If she could utilise the Milu, why not some other local fauna? "That's evil."
"Good people get cheated, just as good horses get ridden," Richard appropriated a well-known Confucian proverb. "Seoul can do as they will, but I'd be shocked if they lack complete disregard for their village. Why don't you see what you and Ariel can round up?"
"Sounds like I'll need navigation and detection then, Mia, can you come with?" Gwen asked, feeling safer if she could keep an eye on Mayuree.
"Sure!" Mayuree pipped up. Following Richard's lead, she then laid her head on Gwen's opposite thigh. "Mmmm, comfy!"
Lulan balled her fists, her breath quickening.
Anita stifled a laugh, "Let's rest up."
The party had chosen to sleep in the converted loft of the town's central hall. If they happened to be inside the Habitat and if another incident were to occur, it was unlikely any of them would notice until it was too late.
For further insurance, Gwen had her Lightning Hounds on patrol, Ariel guarding up top, and the sleepless Caliban slithering below. Concurrently, Richard had Lea patrolling the stream, while Mayuree set up Alarm beacons at distanced intervals.
Richard was the first to fall sleep, perfectly happy with his Gwen pillow, smirking at Lulan's crestfallen expression.
Fudan's Vice Captain rolled her eyes, then resigned herself to a night of meaningful meditation, restoring her spent Essence in anticipation of tomorrow.
Early the next morning, Gwen took a cold and soapy shower at the hall's back to enliven herself, then dried off and slipped back into the taut skin-suit. Though the rain had ceased, the heavy clouds hovering here and there suggested it could turn within the hour.
Her partner for the day likewise dressed, though the quasi-magical suit fitting Mayuree had been appended with a suite of protective items from rings to amulets to bracelets.
While Richard, Lulan and Anita worked to stabilise the village's exterior and clear the road to the mine, she and Mayuree had several stops to make. The first was Mogaung, where Kyoto should have set up camp, followed by a heavily forested region where the party had spotted legions of quasi-magical monkeys yesterday. After the fact, she would loop through the south and make for the first of the villages, Kamaing, to suss Jiantong's willingness for cooperation.
With Mayuree in tow, Gwen blasted through the air at full-tilt, leaving a trail of dissipating Lightning as she raced through the mountain, threading through the gorges, shattering the peace.
Half a kilometre from the Mogaung, Gwen halted in the air.
There was a giant in the village.
At first, she had thought Kyoto had brought a bloody Golem with them, but even for construction Golems, the damned thing was far too heavy. That and it lacked signs of mechatronic artifice. The automaton appeared more like a playdoh toy, a sort of brown, rotund Michelin man.
"Ichiro! Yuki! It's Gwen Song from Fudan; I request parley!"
Her projected voice echoed across the valley.
It took a minute for the Kyoto Mages to respond. When they did, it was in the form of a ponderous giant moving toward her, stomping through the jungle, parting trees with its clumsy hands. From above, the facade of the Japanese goliath almost looked cute, with a blank slate for a face, and two sunken dots for eyes.
"Gwen-san!" Yuki appeared at the head of the doll in the literal sense, lifted from its earthen scalp.
"Yuki-san, you're driving that thing?" Gwen spluttered. "That's cool bananas."
"Haha, it's nothing, Gwen-san. You're too modest." Yuki bowed, as did the giant, slowly. "What do you think? My Kami's name is Dororo-kun. He's an Earthen Spirit, isn't he cute?"
"Your Spirit is a three-storey mud-man?" Gwen grew doubly impressed. "Where do you stash him?"
Yuki giggled. "No, Gwen-san, this is a collection of all the local Kami who agreed to help!"
"Right." Gwen gave her a thumbs up.
"It's true." Mayuree baulked, running a Detect Magic over the creature. "Gwen, that thing is full of Spirits! They're tiny, but there are thousands of them!"
"Mayuree-san, welcome." Yuki bowed again. "Please follow me. You may rest on Dororo-kun if you wish."
Dororo lifted a giant stump of a limb, upon which Gwen and Mayuree gingerly alighted on the giant's head.
"Dororo's is... alive!" Gwen placed a hand on the creature's exterior, where an elegant bed of turf had grown. "Wow."
"You are too kind, Gwen-san." Yuki's attention wandered, searching for Ariel. Gwen obliged by having the Kirin materialise inches away from the Japanese Miko, eliciting an excited squeal. "Ariel-sama! I am happy you are well!"
From the village below came the sound of cheering, which to Gwen was jarring, especially considering the lukewarm reception they had received themselves and the fact that Imperial Japan's past atrocities had burned so vividly in the minds of those living in Yangon.
When they alighted from the giant, Gwen finally grasped just how massive Dororo-kun truly was. It was as though a townhouse was moving through the landscape, yet where it's bridge-breamed sized feet landed, the ground did not deform. Instead, every step seems to invoke spurts of natural growth, germinating grass and mushrooms.
Awaiting for them below was three more of Yuki's religiously attired compatriots and Ichiro.
"Gwen-san." Ichiro went through the motions. "Ariel-sama."
"Of course, Ariel-sama." The Mages produced crystals for Ariel, making Gwen decidedly embarrassed, like a mother whose child had been caught begging for lollies. Beside them, Ariel's HDM treats caused the NoMs to gape with jealousy.
"Masahiro-san, Yamato-san, Hiroki-san, well met." Gwen nodded. "Ichiro-san, its good to see you again as well. I am here today to talk to you about Seoul U."
"Ah." Ichiro passed a glance back and forth with Yuki. "Did you manage to stop their man-made landslide?"
"You knew?" Gwen raised a brow.
"Why didn't you stop them!" Mayuree reflexively accused their opponents.
"Mia, shush," Gwen chided her Diviner. "Why would Kyoto stop Seoul's ploy against us? It's not like they owe us anything."
"I was sure you would figure something out, Gwen-san." Ichiro was starting to remind Gwen of Walken in some ways. Maybe it was their aura or that semi-rigid smile that they both wore. Richard had said that Ichiro was the brain of the operation and he should be the one she should win over.
"We did, and everyone's safe," Gwen affirmed the man's mocking confidence. "How about your side?"
"Dororo-kun took care of it." Yuki nodded toward her conjured Familiar, assuming it could be regarded as such. "The spirits forewarned us, and we were able to chase off their Captain before he could collapse the horn of the mountain."
Gwen looked up to see that Kyoto's village was sheltered under an igneous protrusion, likely a large slab of granite, the sort that was prone to having segments flake off in the event of seismic activity. For a well-trained Magma Mage, it wasn't impossible to manifest a controlled, but malicious catastrophe.
Now that dozens of villagers had emerged to ogle the friendly Ariel, Gwen couldn't help but notice that the number of Demi-humans far exceeded La War, which had been entirely human but for a few with the occasional hint of reptile. Here, at least half of the villagers showed some sign of adaptation to the mana and essence-rich environment.
"The Spirits are abundant where the ley-lines meet." Yuki noticed her wandering eyes. "We do not mind. Transgenesis is common in Kyoto. The old Capital is a cosmopolitan city, unlike Tokyo, or your Shanghai."
"I see." Gwen could only guess at what "transgenesis" meant. Instead, she moved to push forward her case for cooperation. "Yuki-san, Ichiro-san, I would like to propose a temporary alliance between the two of our academies against Seoul University, are you willing to hear me out?"
"Had we not offered back in Yangoon?" Ichiro answered in Yuki's place. "Kyoto will not lose to anyone, but we do not like the methods used by the citizens of our old colony."
Sung Lee might murder you for that comment, Gwen though, masking her immediate dismay. "Good. I am sure that you're all aware that our objective is less mutual sabotage, and more so to do with the delivery of supplies to the villages, the securing of the local district, and the re-opening of the mines. There's that, and the welfare of the local populace."
"Agreed." Ichiro studied Gwen's face. "That is also how we like to do things."
"Shall we agree then to a non-aggression defence pact? I shall speak to Jiantong as well, although I don't believe they will be very pliable."
"Gwen-san," Ichiro halted her proposal.
"What makes you think we may not ask you to remain a guest here?" Ichiro said suddenly. "Wouldn't that assure our victory?"
"Ichiro-kun!" Yuki snapped at her Vice Captain. "Ariel-sama will not allow such a thing!"
Mayuree sidled closer to Gwen.
"You could try." Gwen smirked, squaring her composure while she bluffed. "On the other hand, Caliban's out and about, hungry as always. It would be a shame if a terrible misunderstanding occurred. In my haste to escape, it could get nasty."
"I jest." Ichiro nodded agreeably, satisfied with her answer. "For Yuki-sama's sake, we will trust you, for liars and those with evil hearts are anathema to a celestial Kami."
"Sure." Gwen met the man's gaze head-on. "Once our villages are safe, and our routes clear, we can settle matters amongst ourselves. Who has done more for their hamlet, improved the local conditions and produced the most jadeite- Let's have a match exactly as the Chief Proctor intended."