That Ichiro alone accompanied Gwen while Yuki and the others stayed behind hinted to her that perhaps, Dororo-kun's maintenance wasn't so easily sustainable. Juxtaposing the Imperial Metric System, Kyoto's native sorcery was an eye-opening integration of Western spellcraft into a system of magic that operated on an entirely different resource - in this case, Kami, or the Spirits of the land.
When she questioned Ichiro on the matter, the lanky young man carefully volunteered that in Kyoto, the practice of Onmyōdō, the Path of Yin and Yang, had ruled the Japanese psyche for aeons. Rather than separating from the natural world, Mikos, Onmyoji, and the Yamabushi, esoteric ascetics of the Ya-o-Yorozu no Dō, the way of eight million gods, chose to live among their Demi-human kin. Though initially a contentious divide that sowed tensions between Kyoto and Tokyo, the rise of the Grey Faction in the Mageocracy eventually saw Kyoto's philosophy as an exemplar of peaceful co-existence.
"I would love to visit one day." Gwen tried to imagine a city full of crow-men and cat-girls, with the latter proving to be a sure hit with a particular demographic of visitors.
"And you are welcome to, Gwen-san," Ichiro smoothly answered. "We shall be expecting you. In spring, the Sakura of Gion is in full bloom, while the mermaids sing and strum the shamisen; held aloft by lanterns in a floating world."
"Wow..." Mayuree cooed. "How wonderful."
Dreaming of a mystic Kyoto, Gwen and her party moved toward their next objective, what Ichiro termed "Sarugami Hill" - the domain of the monkey king.
"Gwen-san." Ichiro's tone was cautiously optimistic. "In Nagano, the Saru-Kami has its domain in Jogokudani. In my experience, they are proud, chaotic and unruly. How do you hope to tame them and bend them to your cause?"
"I have Ariel." Gwen patted her pseudo-Kirin, eliciting a purr. "I've got plenty of food in my ring, as well as a cache of special sauce."
"Special… sauce?" Ichiro tasted the words, hoping the synaesthesia would provide a clue.
The trio took almost an hour before Mayuree indicated that she could sense a dense clump of creatures somewhere to their south. As the rain waned, Gwen recognised the landscape for the one which they had passed along the way.
"Ariel, go and parley." Gwen graced her Familiar with a generous dose of Essence, eliciting a curious glance from the Shugenja. "Bring me their leader."
"The Saru-Kami are more willful than you think," Ichiro warned her. "Will Ariel-sama be safe?"
"Sure." Gwen nodded. At worst, a burst of Dragon-fear should bring the monkeys to order, or scatter them.
Several minutes later, a great hoot went up from the hills, followed by the swarming of what must be ten-thousand bodies roving across the treetops. When Ariel reported that all was well, Gwen led Ichiro and Mayuree into the midst of a horde of macaques hanging from every branch of every tree.
"Eek eek, ook!"
"Ook! Hoo hoo, Eek!"
"Incredible!" Ichiro was genuinely impressed. "You can understand the language of the wild Kami?"
Gwen lowered her eyes.
"No need for modesty. You are truly blessed, Gwen-san."
Jesus, she cringed. How could she confess to him now that all she heard were monkey noises? That and Ariel only responded via vague sentiments?
"Ook! Ook! EEEK!"
Suddenly, the whole forest burst into clamour, forcing Ichiro and Mayuree to cover their ears.
An enormous macaque descended from a tree, almost as tall as Gwen, with golden fur, dark, intelligent eyes and most saliently, a glaringly red ass.
"Ook! Ook! EEK!" it began to speak.
"What's happening now, Gwen-san?"
"I don't know! I don't understand a word they just said!" Gwen yelled back, her face flushed as a pippin. "Ariel understands, but I can't comprehend complex thoughts."
Ichiro appeared betrayed.
Sighing, he formed a strange Sigil with his hands and fingers.
"O Kami of the forest, heed the call of this humble servant. Allow your wisdom to correct our imperfect speech."
A bright spark manifested where the Yamabushi stood, growing more solid until it took on the form of a mud-monkey.
"Ook? Ee-eek? Oo? Hoo…"
Something passed between the monkey statue and the "Sarugami".
"It says that a Mage killed its mate," Ichiro translated. "Er... ninth mate."
"Macaques can be polygamous?" Gwen spluttered. "And he has a harem?"
"The Boss is the Matriarch of the family…"
"Oh." Gwen bowed her head toward the regal Matriarch. That the monkeys had a female monarch was pleasing to know. "What do they think of Ariel's proposal? Are they willing to harass Nanmati village in exchange for my reward?"
"The special sauce?" Ichiro waited to see what Gwen would produce. "She would like to taste it first."
"Very well." Gwen stepped forward.
She willed into being a bottle of Maotai, then unstopped the seal with a flourish, suddenly filling the space with a delicious scent of fermented sorghum.
"OOK!" The Matriarch performed a backflip. The rest of the horde salivated.
Richard was right. In the Bestiary, it stated that Wildland macaques were famous for brewing "Monkey Wine" from quasi-magical fruits and that their immense strength and intelligence were all in part associated with these quasi-alchemical concoctions. As such, the older the monkey, the more appreciation they had for good liquor.
But she wasn't done yet.
Congealing a drop of Almudj's emerald Essence on her fingertip, she allowed it to drip into the bottle, infusing the crystal liquid with a viridescent magnificence.
"That's…" Ichiro's composure melted in the face of unexpected divinity.
Taking Gwen's hand in its pink, hairless fingers, the "Boss" took a hearty swig from the bottle.
"Ook! Ook! Ook!" it howled, sending out a great cacophony.
"Five bottles," Ichiro translated, calming himself. It was impossible that the girl was a land-god. She did not study the Dō. An Ōkami would never possess a stranger.
After half-an-hour of "Ooks" and "EEK!", Gwen traded two hundred-cans of SPAM and three bottles of Essence-infused Maotai for the Sarugami's support.
According to the Matriarch, her man had curiously ventured too close to some Mages when without warning, one of them used air to crush her lover against a tree, then left without even eating the poor bugger, a greater sin than the first.
"Ook! Ook! Eek-Ook!"
"Are we good?" Gwen asked Ichiro after explaining who the likely culprit was.
"They agree," Ichiro nodded. "She says to show them what to do."
"Show them what to do?" Gwen scratched her head, mimicked by a hundred macaques. Having never harassed a rural village in either life, she had thought the monkeys the mercenary experts. "Tell them when and where we'll meet. I'll figure something out."
The allied party's next stop was Kamaing, Jiantong's domain.
Kamaing, like La War, was a saddle village with a deep gorge that fed on the estuaries running downhill from the Arakan basin into the Irrawaddy river. At its furthermost edge, it housed the Monastery Of Mahawithudayama, a sizeable temple of four hundred monks sitting adjacent to a village of almost a thousand souls, making it the most populated of the four.
As they flew into range, what was disconcerting was that a massive landslide had visibly carved through the lowland. Though the debris had spared the town itself, it was self-evident that the village's access to the southern highway and the estuaries connecting it to the main river had been cut off.
"To think Seoul had even planned for this!" Ichiro sucked in a breath of cold air. "I am both disgusted and impressed."
Fuck me, that's on us, Gwen perspired, wiggling a brow at Mayuree in case the Diviner's honesty got the best of her. If one followed the path of the mudslide, she could bet it led straight back to La War. Topographically, each of the university's assigned villages sat within the region's rolling hills, with La War and Kamaing on one end, and Nanmati and Mogaung on the other. Together, the four areas formed a sort of oblong circuit. Mogaung had the highest overall elevation, followed by Seoul's Nanmati, then La War and finally, occupying the fertile lowland was Jiantong's Kamaing.
"Halt!" Ichiro stopped the party from advancing about five hundred meters out. "There's something here. Diviner, what can you see?"
Mayuree had sensed something as well, though her premonition operated on unease and danger rather than wisdom.
"One second." She slowed to a standstill. "Detect Magic! Scry!"
A few moments later, the Diviner turned to her party with an apologetic expression.
"I can't see anything," she lamented. "There's a barrier set up, and there's Illusion Magic all over the place."
"Must be their Vice Captain, that or the Fuda user," Ichiro affirmed Mayuree's findings.
"Why not both?" Gwen shrugged. She took a deep breath, then activated Clarion Call. "Jiantong, this is Fudan and Kyoto. We are at the edge of your boundary! We demand parley!"
A moment later, an illusory projection of none other than Kurou appeared.
"Well, bugger. How awkward." Gwen blinked at the image of the visibly gloating Kurou.
"Hello, Song Shimei," the horse-faced young man neighed. "Whatever your proposal, allow me to say Cao-Ni-Ma. We will not be entertaining your hare-brained schemes, not until you Fudan fools beg for forgiveness. We know that landslide came from La War, and even now, Ying shixiong and my allies from Emei are taking care of your deserter from Huashan—"
"SHIT!" Gwen grabbed Mayuree by the arm, revving up a Dimension Door. "Ichiro! We're going back to La War! Catch up if and when you can!"
Lulan contorted her spine so steeply as to form a perfect U, narrowly avoiding the pair of swords just grazing her hair.
"Plum-flower Strike!" Vicki's sword reversed course mid-swing, slicing downward without warning, scraping across her metallic flesh, parting Lulan's skin-suit.
"Five-Petal Gale!" Below, as though a blooming white-yellow plum flower, five illusory swords caught Lulan's legs, scoring hits across her boots, her calves and her thighs.
"Sweep!" Lulan desperately attempted to protect her upper torso from the girls, parrying one blow with Anita's crystalline Mage Armour while battering away Vicki's swing with her iron-clad arm. "Misty Step!"
"Blossom Burst!" The girls were relentless, reappearing a second behind Lulan as she sought to lead the fight away from Richard.
Not too far from where the girls fought, Richard stood in front of a collapsed Anita, already pale-faced and staggered from a sword blow that had dealt no visible wound but had dropped her like a rock.
"We should finish this quickly." Ying Xiang stood with both hands open, like a man hawking wares at a market. Behind the Sword Mage, twin swords hovered in the air as though feathers tangled in a current, behaving as the wind behaves. "Care to make this easy?"
"Sorry mate, I don't think so," Richard remained entirely relaxed. "Got to give you Clanners credit though. That was a slick hit."
"You flatter me." The Captain of Jiantong inclined his head. "I dare say she would have returned to Shanghai in a burst of Conjuration were it not for your water ghost. May I commend you for deflecting a blow from my Flowing Snowdrift Style."
"Commend away." Richard glanced at the empty sky. "Fair warning though. Gwen should be back soon."
"As you will. Silk-cutting Sword!"
The lengthier of the twin swords flew through the air with a melodious whisper, making for Richard's throat.
"Lea! Water Shield!"
The Water Mage's command activated simultaneously. Around Ying, a water prison began to manifest, quickly enclosing the Captain while around Richard, a Water Shield parried the sword indirectly, wary of its collated mystical energy, misdirecting the blow without directly confronting its momentum.
"Hmmph!" Ying Xiang grunted, sensing his attacks being neutralised. Taking the crafty Water Mage would be far more complicated than the Mineral Abjurer, who had made the mistake of taking a direct blow, deceived by the strike's illusory gentleness. "Cloud Ascending Step!"
With a stomp, Ying teleported some ten meters into the air, eluding Lea's Water Prison.
"Rain of Blades!"
The second implement, his heart-sword, split into two dozen sword-spears before descending upon Richard and Anita.
Richard saw no need to move. Before the swords could hit, a breaking crest of water, manifesting as a fantastical fountain, broke overhead, diverting the swords so that they penetrated blade to the hilt into the soil, missing their targets. In the distance, Richard noted that Lulan wasn't faring well against the Emei sisters at all. Despite his bluff, he had no idea if Gwen was going to make it back to base before their mana was exhausted, whatever was to happen, he couldn't allow Lulu to be disabled or Anita to be teleported back.
The blade of Ying's main-hand sword penetrated Richard's shield without warning, then stabbed into Richard's shoulder.
"Focus, Mister Huang!" Ying pushed the sword deeper, but despite his exaltation, disappointment came just as quick when the sword passed through Richard's body, taking with it a chunk of Richard's skin-suit, but with no visible spray of red.
"I can do this all day. You should have used that mystical magic you put into Anita."
"I really should have," Ying agreed wholeheartedly. "But the IUCC isn't the place for butchery. Are you tempting me to kill you outright?"
"Nah, Mate, I am notoriously hard to kill." Richard pointed a finger back at his assailant. "Too bad you won't get a second chance. Lea!"
His Undine burst into fine particles of mist, shrouding Richard and Anita.
"Cloud-leaping Step!" Ying cursed, clearing the sodden space the Undine now occupied. If the spray had caught him, Mao knew what would have happened.
The truth was he was at a disadvantage against a soft-defence expert like Richard, especially considering his Familiar was impossible to track and could act wholly independently. If they weren't in a competition, he could have used a Fuda to dispel the Familiar, but for now, Jiantong's Abjurer was back in their village, protecting the town against outside incursions.
Ying made a feint, forcing Richard to raise his shield. "Misty Step!"
"Shit!" Richard cursed, realising Ying had abandoned him and Anita and had gone straight for Lulan. The girl held her own against the twins, but it didn't take a Clanner to realise her Huashan Style was a horrible match-up against an armour breaking specialist from Wutang. "LULAN! TO ME!"
Lulan's response was immediate. After so many months adventuring together, her trust in Richard was no less than her faith in Gwen.
Abandoning her swing and even her defence, she took a shot to the right breast, which deflected off Anita's armour, then copped a blow to her left arm, gashing her flesh an inch deep. The unexpected opening had surprised the two Emei girls, who understood their mistake when Ying appeared a brief second behind where Lulan had been, signalling the girls to use their mana potions.
Lulan meanwhile, rallied within range of Richard.
A healing injector stanched the blood seeping from two dozen injuries.
"Xiang shixiong, do we continue?" the Emei girls asked.
Ying's hesitation lasted only a second. "Flank them; we have to send at least one of their Earthen Mages home."
"Ariel, Barbanginy as soon as we D-D into range!"
"No! Not yet!" Ichiro obstructed Gwen from instantly teleporting into the fray.
The team had come in stealth, with Mayuree running a Scry on La War from the dense woodland surrounding the village. When she reported that Anita was down and out and that Richard and Lulan now bathed in blood, Gwen's preeminent redress was triple-homicide.
"Don't you dare." Gwen glared at Ichiro dangerously, her green eyes threatening to swallow the man bones and all. "You have two seconds to make your case."
"Temper!" Ichiro knitted his brows. "For the servant of a Kirin-sama, you have much to learn from Yuki, Gwen-san. Your companions are safe for now, and we have unexpectedly caught up. Why waste this opportunity?"
"He's right." Mayuree tugged at Gwen's skin-suit. "I've got a... er... good feeling about this?"
At Mayuree's behest, Gwen suppressed her boiling Essence, wondering just how is it that dragons dealt with an ego consisting of pure clumps of elemental energy.
"If you trust me." Ichiro's lips curled upwards, studying Ariel's master as he spoke his next words with great care and conviction. "Then you must first wait..."
"Wait? For how long?" Gwen pictured Lulan's torn and bleeding body with a growl. "Even Buddha's patience has a limit..."
"I am at my alchemical limit."
"Me too," Richard remarked. "Shall we-"
Like a celestial choir drawn from seventh heaven, Gwen's voice crackled across the private channel.
"Lulu," a command came across loud and clear. "Drop a Panzerschreck on one of the Emei girls, either one's fine, pick the one that cut you. Do it now before they notice, in one... two..."
Lulan needed no second guessing, nor did she hesitate to immediately began gathering what was left of her latent energies, her mana now buoyed by hope and happiness. With a grunt of supreme effort, all her anger and frustration manifested into a final spell before she was OoM.
A shrieking blur flew past Richard's shield, ignoring the liquid defence.
Faster than the eye could follow, her unexpected assault struck the weaker of the Emei girls square in the stomach, catching her midway through a spell.
A micro-second of bewildered incredulity followed before Vivian folded like a prawn, spraying pink-mist from her lips, then tumbled through the air like a rag-doll.
Lulan turned to regard Richard, struggling to perceive that Gwen's concept of a solid-projectile could be so powerful as to negate the innate defensive magic all Sword Mages trained since childhood. What the duo had hoped was that the Panzerschreck would blow the Jiantong Mages some distance away to be caught by their allies, but neither of them had expected Lulan would fold the sister like a paper crane.
Then came Gwen's next command.
"Richard! All attack! We're coming in hot!"
A thunderous command fulminated across Vivian, Vicki and Ying's Message channel just as Ying forewarned his Clan sisters about the build-up of earthen mana from Huashan's deserter.
Unbidden, the fatigued trio ceased all movement and stifled all thought, their Astral Souls suddenly alienated from their bodies.
A Heart-seeking Sword caught Vivian square in the abdomen. Besides her, Vicki, who shared a sympathetic link with her twin-sister, blanched as her body ignited with nerve-fraying agony.
Unlike the girls, Ying's recovery was near-instant. He dived for Vivian, understanding the trouble he would be in if one of the prized twins of Emei died under his watch. The IIUC could wait, and the girls could try again next year, but if one of them perished, that was the end of Emei's hopes and dreams for the next decade.
His heart sank. Trouble always travelled in multitudes.
A Dimension Door completed its manifestation, accompanied by a bolt of blue-white plasma, then finally, the boom of a familiar voice reverberating the horizon.
Richard stopped Lulan before she somehow squeezed out another Panzerschreck, in her excited state, anything was possible.
Above, a coil of electricity pivoted past the pirouetting Vivian, struck Ying's staggering body, then moved onto Vicki. Still stunned, the Emei Sword Mage put up no barrier nor resistance, merely allowing the spell to run its course before she too fell from the sky like a wilted flower.
Jiantong's Captain fared better, just managing a stoic parry before he impressively caught the first falling girl, then performed a mid-air Misty Step to pluck the second one, swallowing Gwen's attack without so much as a grimace.
"I YIELD!" he shouted toward the direction from which the electricity had emitted. "STOP ATTACKING!"
"Gwen!" Lulan squealed, mangling Richard's liquid arm in her excitement. "I knew you'd be back!"
"And earlier than expected." Richard bit back the pain. "I wonder what happened at Kamaing? I hope it's still standing."
Ichiro scratched his nose, doubly impressed by the regular manifestation of Gwen's Chain Lightning. Her range, accuracy and power were all far above the Lightning Mages he had seen back home, and to think she was so much younger than his peers.
Of course, Jiantong's Captain was incredible as well. Whatever the man did to withstand a tier 6 blast from Gwen, it marked him as someone equally extraordinary.
"That was amazing." Gwen marvelled at the Kotodama user's unexpected prowess, which they had routed through Jiantong's Message channel after Mayuree tweaked her magic. "I'd hate to be on the receiving end of one of those power words."
"I got lucky," Ichiro confessed. Catching their fatigued, anxious and unsuspecting opponents off-guard was the only reason the seasoned Combat Mages had lost their composure. Usually, Kotodama was utilised for commanding Kami. Against someone like the Void sorceress, whose body brimmed with Essence, he doubted the girl would even flinch.
Their opponent made his case, carrying a girl in each arm.
"ACCEPTED." Gwen's face finally discarded the murderous aura she had earlier worn with vim and passion. "Let's see how pliable they are."
The trio emerged from the village's western tree line, joining Lulan and Richard who princess-carried the unconscious Anita. Far from the Mages, safely tucked away in the town above, the entirely of La War's citizens gawked at the aftermath of the Mage battle, etching every detail of the titanic struggle to be passed on with every intention of gross exaggeration in subsequent retellings.
"I am going to perform triage before their Contingency Rings activate." Ying Xiang threw down his swords before landing on the soft turf and lowering the girls to the floor. His gaze swept from Gwen to Ichiro and back, comprehension dawning in his eyes. "Then we talk."
"Granted." Gwen brought out both Ariel and Caliban, so that together with Ichiro, Mayuree, Richard and Lulan, they had Jiantong surrounded above and below.
Ying gave her a cautious glance before producing two healing injectors for the girls, stabbing the syringes into their thighs. When a flush of colour returned to the girl's battered bodies, he furthermore produced three pills, one for himself and the larger ones for the Emei sisters. While the girls moaned and squirmed as their flesh mended, he poked about their torso, activating some indecipherable fount of mystical energy. Finally, he turned to Richard. "Here, take this— for your Mineral Mage."
Richard caught the pill, a dark herbal sphere with a sweet, fragrant scent.
"Take it orally. It'll heal internal injuries, as well as concussions. Expect a day or two before she recovers."
"Ying, what do you have to say for yourself?" Gwen demanded. "Why did you attack us?"
"Why?" Ying placed a finger on each of the girls' necks, then let out a strangled breath. "You attacked us first, didn't you? The landslide came from your village."
Gwen looked at Richard, who shrugged.
"That was Seoul U." Gwen pointed to the eastern border of La War, where a quarter of the village had now turned into cliff-side villas with a view. "Not us."
"Whatever you say," Ying retorted, fully accepting of the outcome regardless of the rationale. "You're the victors. I hadn't expected you to return so soon, and most certainly not with a Jap in tow. What can I say? What isn't meant to be- isn't meant to be."
"The pleasure's all mine, Xiang-san." Ichiro bowed. "I don't suppose you're thinking of leaving, just like that?"
"And why not?" Ying nodded. "You bested our assault and defended your base. Good work. Keen to grill or boil us?"
"You hope to continue the competition?" Richard said.
"Do you have a better idea?" Ying smirked.
"Maybe you shouldn't be going home so readily," Gwen suddenly interjected. "Care to know why I got here so quickly? Why I knew how and where to ambush you?"
Ying raised a sceptical brow.
"Your brother-in-craft, Kurou, rat-fucked you." Gwen smirked in return, allowing her mocking laughter to trickle through the air like birdsong. "He told us where you would be, and in exchange, we had to make sure you wouldn't return to Wutang in one piece."
"Kurou? No way." Ying's face was all smiles, but Fudan's Mages could all spot the vein throbbing on his forehead. There was no amount of bluff that could mask the equivalent of a scarlet centipede bulging against Ying's skull. "He wouldn't dare!"
"You can ask him later." Gwen raised her dominant hand, forming a Chakram hoving above her dominant hand, causing her party to gawk. "Left or right arm? Maybe a leg? I can tell you now; anything consumed by my Void doesn't grow back."
"I SAID WAIT!"
Her Familiar opened up into its Spider Form, polluting the space where Ying stood with a torrent of Void-induced vertigo. Caliban grew into a horrific six-foot arachnid.
"Don't forget to tell Kurou he owes me." Her Dragon-fear flooded the air. "He's promised to cooperate."
"STOP! WE FORFEIT!" Ying wailed through clenched teeth. "As Captain of Jiaotong, I declare Jiantong forfeits!"
Gwen's monster settled down.
"Very well, Fudan and Kyoto bear witness to your forfeit." Gwen's voice was cooler than a cucumber. "You may now leave. Tell Kurou to make for Hpakan at first opportunity. If you need healing supplies, we're happy to spare some for our fellow competitors."
"No need." Ying's shoulders slumped, all tension draining from his body. "Cao, tell me, have I been had?"
"No hard feelings." Gwen struck out a hand to shake the man's hand.
"Touche." Ying recalled their first meeting, meeting her halfway. "Maybe this is for the best. We won't have made it far, not with our internal problems."
Meanwhile, Mayuree and Lulan helped the Emei girls on their feet.
"Thank you for your mercy, Song shimei." Vivian coughed. From the looks of bloodstains trailing from her facial orifice, several months of physiotherapy would likely follow.
"Likewise, Li shimei." Vicki stooped. "I hope we meet again under better circumstances."
"Yes." Lulan wasn't sure how to respond, just a few minutes ago, they were at each other's throats.
"Anytime." Gwen offered them each a handshake. "It's a competition, and we are all creatures of necessity. Oh, and Ying?"
"Thank Kurou for us."
Ying's jaws clenched and unclenched. "I will."
"Good." Gwen grinned. "Have fun."
"..." Ying retrieved his swords. "We shall take our leave. Goodbye, and good luck."
The moment their opponents were out of sight, Gwen fussed over Anita and Lulan's wounds. Conversing with Richard, she applauded the help she had received from Ichiro and elucidated their current alliance.
"So, how'd we do?" Gwen flashed a grin at the lanky Kotodama user. "That was all thanks to you. Lots of CCs for Kyoto, I bet."
Ichiro mulled for a moment before answering, opening his mouth to speak, but struggling to express his conflicted feelings.
"You are too modest." The man met Gwen's green and gleaming eyes with a complicated disposition. The wooden gaze he held was of someone who had raised a chicken only to hatch a cockatrice. "Gwen-san... I asked you to negotiate a ceasefire."