The party was up just before dawn on the fourth day of their Kachin expedition.
The local women made a rice noodle broth from the wild game Gwen's hounds had brought back to the village, eliciting much happiness in a rural Frontier where meat was a rare luxury. By now, the villagers had warmed up to the contestants, and so among the laughter of children poking at Gwen's dogs and horrified parents spanking said children, the team readied themselves for their duties.
Considering Anita's condition, Richard volunteered to defend the village and look after their recovering teammate while Ying's internal medicine ran its course. The remaining trio was to make for Nanmati to meet with Yuki and Ichiro, joined by Gwen's mercenary macaques.
When they had yesterday shared dinner to discuss strategy, both sides agreed that there was no way for Seoul to win, so a little pressure was sure to make them amiable to cooperation, with reparations in the form of cleaning up their mess.
"Good luck, and give em hell." Richard gave Gwen a high-five while glancing at Mayuree. "Don't forget to keep an eye out."
"Don't worry, Richard," Mayuree assured Richard naively, mistaking his concern. "If Gwen's in danger, I am in danger, and I'll let her know."
"Thanks, Mia." Richard patted Gwen's canary on the head. "Look after her, eh?"
"Who's looking after who?" Gwen snorted. "Take care of Anita. Wait for my good news."
With that, the trio lifted into the air, then blasted off with a boom toward Nanmati.
Sung Lee meditated outside Nanmati's hall, his countenance grim and smouldering, the mana within his conduits simmering at a boiling point.
Four days prior, heedless of expending their allocation of magical items, the team had made it to Kachin before any of their competitors. Their Diviner, Jae-joong, had mapped the topography of the four villages within the first day, laid out a prediction of their opponent's abilities, then charted a path forward for a close victory.
The plan involved sabotaging Fudan and Kyoto's way forward, all the while maintaining their own.
It was unscrupulous, he knew, but all was fair in a competition where their team's talents left them little choice but to refuse to play by the rules.
Of their number, only Sung was capable of using Shape Stone and Transmute Earth en mass. The rest of their otherwise offence-focused arrangement lacked the utility. From the outset, Seoul's Mages were soldiers, elites from the Kaesŏng Front, not engineers nor rescue workers.
Comparatively, Si-won, whose versatility included ice constructs, couldn't help with clearing landslides or expediating excavation.
Jung-min, who insisted on coming along to get back at Fudan, was only useful for scouting and disruption.
Jae-joong, the Earth-Element Diviner, had already proven his usefulness, but he couldn't use Transmutation Magic.
And Yoon-Seok, their Abjurer, was a Salt user, an expert defender, famed in Kaesŏng, peerless against the Undead, but likewise, useless when it came to debris removal.
As for the fillers from the lesser families, the two female members of their team occupied the positions of a utilitarian Enchanter focusing on buffs, and a Water Mage of middling affinity. Together with the girls, the remaining three had been left behind to organise the supply-train from Mandalay.
In opposition, Kyoto's five-element mastery of Onmyōdō allowed elemental shifts to change their Kami to one suitable for excavation and rebuilding, while Fudan had two Mages capable of churning massive volumes of earth, and a Water Mage with a sapient Spirit.
What displeased Sung more than anything was that Fudan had received prior knowledge from their native member that Kachin was going to be a disaster zone, and that their quest would involve very little killing.
According to Advisor Kim, the fairness of the competition was unquestionable, but still, the fact that Fudan, a lower-tier institution, held such an advantage was an unforgivable coincidence.
But Sung wasn't the type to believe in serendipity. Victory, as his father had said, was for man to grasp with his own hands, and that was why they had to employ every advantage.
On the first night, when he and Jung-min arrived at Mogaung to destabilise the mountainside, an army of clay dolls had suddenly accosted them, hurling boulders the size of melons at the Mages with terrific strength. Even after decimating the conjured constructs with a Magma Nova they kept on coming, countless and relentless. Somehow, despite departing later and seemingly without haste, Kyoto's defence had time to spare.
When Sung further unleashed a Magma Burst, followed by a Runic Strike, a giant the height of the Secretariat building in Yangon tore itself from the mountain and began to hurl small hills at him and Jung-min. When he haphazardly issued a Magma Strike against the cracking facade of the horn looming over the village, the giant braced itself, then caught the crashing debris.
After that, Sung knew they had done all they could, and that it was time to go. While the giant lay buried in the rubble, half-wrecked and arms open to protect the northern slope of the village, he had Jung-min expedite a rapid retreat.
He had expected better news from Si-Won, the second most competent member of his team and one he could trust with his life.
Instead, his sibling returned, clad in blood.
A deep gash ran down the side of his lumbar where his thrice-enchanted uniform, designed to withstand blows tier 5 and below, had been torn to shreds. When they sliced away the runically weaved silk and glamoured glyphs, they saw that a section had been corroded, extracting from Si-win a pound of flesh.
Worse still, even after Si-won overdosed his alchemical limit, the injury refused meaningful reconstruction. Where the flesh did mend, it warped. Even after cutting away Si-won's necrotising tissue and using a Restoration Potion, he couldn't sit or stand.
"His Astral Soul is damaged," Jae-joong returned grimly after an inspection with Detect Magic. "He used a D-D ring as well. That's going to cost us CCs. The only contestant capable of doing this to Si-won would be—"
"The Void user," Sung spat. "I know."
When he had thought about it; was it not evident that Gwen Song had goaded them into that absurd duel? Sure, Jung-min had wanted to teach Eunae a lesson about allying with their opposition, but the public tongue-lashing their team had received from Magister von Schlabrendorff, followed by their unexpected defeat, had benefitted Fudan far more than it diminished Seoul.
When Sung reviewed the fight with Advisor Kim, it became self-evident that Fudan had not only won the moral battle but the magic one as well.
"Eric Walken is trying to game our strategy," Advisor Kim had warned him. "If you move in groups of two or threes, your flexibility will be drastically reduced. Meanwhile, thanks to their Ace, Fudan can move the sorceress alone while her other team members defend or flank. I think it's best not to obsess over the girl, and instead focus on a strategy involving the natural environment."
Avoid Combat? Sung huffed. Korea, possessing the best Combat Mages in all of Asia, running from a second-string university in Shanghai?
The very notion was absurd!
Their loss had been a miscalculation, a misstep.
In terms of raw power, Sung did not believe himself the girl's inferior.
Upon Gwen Song's neck was a laurel he was happy to behead to adorn his crown. When the girl lay broken, his victory should burn all the brighter.
In anticipation, he had resolved all of Nanmati's immediate problems. The existing flood had been diverted and the roads cleared of debris. He had even paved the mountain path with smooth basalt and crushed granite conjured from the depth. The route to the mine was likewise reaching completion as well, reinforced by a hardened flow of magma disintegrating the overgrown vegetation, creating a temporary crust that should survive a few months at least, enough for the proctors to gauge the increase in productivity.
Had the delay of their opponents succeeded, a stalwart defence was all that remained, something in which the Combat Mages of Seoul excelled.
Whatever the media would say in the coming days, a victory was a victory. To draw on an old idiom his father oft-repeated: it does not matter how you go, so long as you go to Seoul.
A sudden clattering of feet disrupted his meditation.
Jae-joong, Jung-min and Yoon-Seok burst into the hall. "You're not going to believe this."
"What is it?" Sung opened his eyes. "Have the heavens collapsed?"
"Just about." Jae-joong's complexion was pallid. "Gwen Song is here, and she brought an army!"
"The local peasantry?" he asked. It made sense that the locals were up in arms. If so, it meant Si-won had succeeded. Hopefully, the collateral damage wouldn't overly diminish their CC gains. "Is she trying to use them as fodder?"
"If only!" their Diviner spluttered, struggling to describe what he had earlier Scryed. "She's here with Kyoto U, and… an army of monkeys, they're demanding our cooperation."
Diplomacy. No surprise, considering both Fudan and Kyoto's team leaders were women. They must feel so confident in their advantage to brazenly waltz into the enemy's zone like this, heedless of the defences Sung and his Abjurer had set. Now, all he had to do was smash the girl's well-meaning plans to smithereens.
"Jung-min," Sung Lee, heir apparent to Yooksung Conglomerate, addressed his cousin, who suddenly flinched from the attention. "You began our troubles by harassing Uncle Jae's daughter, and so for the good of Uncle Lee, it may be best if you took responsibility."
Indeed, Sung told himself. Whatever happens now, Gwen Song had only herself to blame.
"They know we're here." Yuki led the way, mounted on Dororo's head, with a dozen macaques hanging from the giant's arms, torso and legs, having the time of their lives.
"So, I'll do the talking?" Gwen felt an exhilarating rush, her blood quickened by their victory over Jiantong. "Also, a reminder, I promised Jung-min for Mrs Matriarch."
"Ook, ook!" the Matriarch gesticulated viciously, cackling in a human-like manner.
"I fear that may be impossible, Sarugami-sama." Yuki bowed her head. "Please recall Buddha's mercy, even for one who lacks it himself."
"Ook, Eek! Eee!"
"Vengeance will only bring calamity," Yuki said. "Please reconsider. The family of Lee Jung-min is powerful, indeed, and your land lacks the means to defend against their retribution."
"That would be for the best, Sarugami-san."
"That's right," Gwen added a proverb of her own. "The rarer action is in virtue rather than in vengeance."
"Well said, Gwen-san," Yuki translated for Gwen.
Gwen knew she looked strange speaking to Ariel and Caliban via pantomime but listening to the Kyoto priestess having a full blown conversation with a monkey was mind boggling on a whole other level.
"Gwen." Mayuree unexpectedly tugged on Gwen's sleeve. "I don't have a good feeling about this."
"Oh?" Gwen glanced at Kyoto's Mages with apologetic eyes. "How bad?"
"My head's buzzing," Mayuree confessed. "It wasn't so bad before, but I think I... we'll be in mortal danger."
"Maybe you should remain here," Gwen assured the Diviner. Considering their overwhelming advantage and the fact that there was no way for Seoul to back out, she had full confidence in the Korean's ultimate capitulation. Still, considering Mayuree's "condition"...
She glanced at Lulan, who appeared impatient to get on with it, then to Yuki and Ichiro, whose politeness bordered on wretchedness. That there was danger was undeniable, but going home on a hunch wasn't an option either.
"It's fine. I want to come with you." Mayuree struck out her chest. "We're in this together!"
With that, Dororo began to move.
To Fudan's and Kyoto's surprise, they managed to ride the giant doll almost on top of the village before Sung Lee emerged from the Nanmati's central hut, flying toward them with two others in tow. It was a good sign, one that demonstrated humility.
To Lee's right was Jung-min, the Air Evoker-Transmuter, looking paler than a ghost.
To his left was their Abjurer, whose mana signature Gwen immediately identified as a Salt user.
"Welcome, Song Hubae," the man said. "To what do we owe this pleasure?"
"I see you're missing an Ice Mage." Gwen observed the trio. "Is Si-won still recovering from his escapade? Or has he teleported back to Seoul already?"
"Si-Won's life hangs by a thread." Sung Lee met her gaze head-on. "But never mind my brother. I see you have brought the locals."
"I have brought victims of your careless and wanton desire for violence!" Gwen's eye sparkled with haughty malevolence. "Least of all, the Matriarch of the mountain, whose mate was murdered by Jung-min over there for sport!"
Sung turned to regard his cousin.
"We killed some apes during the survey, while we were breaking for lunch," he answered quietly, in a world of his own. "They got too close. It was nothing."
"There you have it." Sung returned his gaze upon the unsuspecting Void Sorceress, noting how frail her white neck appeared. "Is that all?"
"Ha! You wish! I come to represent Fudan, Kyoto, the people of Kachin and the residents of the land," Gwen declared, taking the opportunity to make her case. "For your transgression, Seoul U must provide reparations, cease hostility, and henceforth cooperate with future operations. You may have lost the IIUC, but you need not lose your honour or your reputation. You can make this right, Lee Seonbae-nim! We can work together—"
The Magma Mage listened to Gwen's speech with a look of intense concentration.
"Gwen!" Mayuree was the first to notice. "He's channelling magic!"
"HALT!" Ichiro barked beside Gwen, interrupting Gwen's oratory, sending a ripple of mana through to air to assault their opponent. "Stop him!"
"Salt Ward!" Beside the Magma Mage, Yoon-Seok, Seoul's Abjurer, erected a barrier which shimmered as the effects of Ichiro's Kotodama rippled across a semi-visible screen.
"Gwen-san, beware his Banish!" Ichiro hissed. "And stop the Magma Mage!"
"Lulu!" Gwen commanded Lulan even as she moved to cast Ball Lightning, understanding that diplomacy had given way to brawn.
"Panzerschreck!" Lulan let loose a slab of solid iron, rapidly spinning as it made for the Captain of Seoul U.
"Lightning Sphere!" Combined with Gwen's explosive bursts of blue-white electricity, the space above the village erupted into a dazzling light fantastic.
From somewhere within the explosion, Lulan's shell spiralled away, deflected by a barrier. Faster than the naked eye could register, Lulan's solid-slug landed in the mud, skipped thrice, then slammed into a hut, collapsing the structure and sending a dozen inhabitants fleeing. When the slug re-emerged, it was crimson with gore.
Gwen stared in horror as the building collapsed, momentarily speechless.
"You—!" With a mental command, her Lightning-charged deer hounds broke from the tree line surrounding the village and made for the collapsed structure.
"Gwen! Something's coming!" Mayuree detected a seismic swelling of elemental Magma, her danger-sense kicking into the red. "We have to get out of here!"
"We'll keep the settlers safe, Gwen-san." Yuki's habitual demurity wrinkled with uncharacteristic anger. "Seoul appears to have forsaken all regard for their quest."
Gwen's Divination likewise pinged. Shit was about to hit the fan.
"Monkey!" She screeched at the hooting Matriarch. "Get your kin back into the forest! Do it now!"
"OOK!" With a mighty leap, the Matriarch disappeared quick as a whistle, leading her pack away from Dororo.
"Dororo! Help the villagers!" Yuki urged her giant, who even now was shedding little models of itself onto the ground.
"It's a little too late for that," Sung Lee's booming voice roared across the cloudy sky. "PLANAR ALLY - MOLTEN GUARDIAN!"
Spurts of lava, accompanied by jets of lemon-tinged sulphur, burst into being below where Gwen and the others hovered some dozen meters in the air. Where Dororo stood, space distorted, tearing the fabric between the material and the immaterial.
In the blink of an eye, a gate into the Para-Elemental Gate of Magma came into being, sending up a twenty-metre jet of yellow-green gas.
Suddenly, Gwen found that she couldn't breathe. When she inspired to cast Dimension Door, her throat caught on fire.
Below, an orange vortex of flowing, flaming earth engulfed the immediate vicinity, crashing into Dororo's vine-strew legs, sending up a great sizzle of burning vegetation, made worse by the stench of rotten eggs.
Yuki's complexion turned white as a sheet, suddenly gnashing her teeth as her eyes spun uncontrollably, struck by such unfathomable agony even as she choked for breath.
"Oooooooo!" Dororo stomped its feet, ripping itself limb from limb, only to step once more into yet more lava, sending Yuki into a second, convulsive bout.
A horrid, bone-chilling epiphany flashed across Gwen's inward eye. She realised she had seen the gaseous magic first-hand, though she had never subjected herself as a victim.
Jung-min! She caught the Mage with her watering eyes. Her variation created floating motes of lightning. For an Air Mage, they could arguably flood the vicinity with a variety of noxious gasses.
But Cloud Kill was forbidden for use against human personnel! She screamed internally. Did the bastard have a death wish?
Dororo was now waist-high in lava and crumbling rapidly. Ichiro promptly activated a Shielding Pendant around his Captain; then with a blast of silvery Conjuration, he activated both their Translocation Amulets, no longer caring for the CC penalty.
Simultaneously, Sung's conjured monster materialised. From a maw that now opened into what looked to be the nine layers of Dante's Inferno, a jagged, obsidian head emerged, exhaling mustard, kindled with scintillating brimstone. With yet another billow of unbearable heat, an arm freed itself, followed by a second, moving with a rapidity that was surprising for a thing of such mass.
FUCK! Gwen realised the error of having both Mayuree and Lulan with her. Could Lulan take a hit from the lava giant? She thought desparingly. Mia needs to teleport the fuck out, right now.
Overhead, the fiery salamander had fully formed. It was now taller than the decimated Dororo, with a body brutally barbed with obsidian shards in the manner of a sadistic plate mail. From its visor, a single flaming eye looked out with unfathomable rage, cruel with a wanton desire for ultraviolence.
Without warning, it opened its mouth, dribbling magma so hot that Gwen was sure the white glow was pure plasma.
Then without mercy, a volcanic torrent erupted.
Gwen's eyes grew hazy, her throat constricted, and her lungs burned.
Shamefully, her first thought was of her Ghosting Amulet and her Contingency Ring. Arguably, Mayuree was also in possession of both as well, but Lulan-
JESUS! Lulu had neither!
Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Gwen wanted to bite off her tongue. If she had cared for her friends, she should have burned her crystals and brought damned Contingency Rings for Lulu!
Her eyes swept over Mayuree, who had fallen to her knees, gasping and fumbling for air. Shit! Gwen realised yet another miscalculation. She had her draconic-constitution and resistance to poisons, but Mia was just a girl. She really should have left her back in the forest, even if she was paranoid over the Enchantment afflicting Mayuree's mind.
A shimmering shield appeared around Gwen. Instead of teleporting herself away, Mayuree had activated her Ring of Protection but had set it onto her friend.
WHAT THE FUCK? Gwen silently cursed her Diviner. Until Mia's Ghosting Amulet activated, Mayuree was here to stay. Did she have to suffer an attack? The instructions had stated that the amulet was triggered by invasive magic.
"Eaaarrrgh!" Lulan unleashed a cracked and broken howl of frustration.
To Gwen's dismay and despair, Lulu charged toward the flaming sword with one of her own, manifesting a massive slab of iron two-metres tall and as wide as her torso to meet the incoming cloud of smouldering, volcanic air.
GOD DAMN IT! Gwen cursed her myopia. In the heat of the moment, both of her companions were all heart and no brain. When all three of them possessed a selfless, masochistic capacity for martyrdom, all they could do was trip over one another's feet. If even one of them had said, "fuck this for a lark," and had Dimension Doored away, then the matter would have been infinitely less complicated.
ARIEL! She commanded her hidden Familiars, thanking God she had that much foresight at least. CALIBAN!
"EEEE!" Ariel slammed into Lulan, escaping with the Sword Mage.
"SHAAA!" Caliban instantly expanded into its Spider form, ripping Mayuree from Dororo's back before leaping into the fire, where Gwen hoped she had enough vitality to carry Mayuree to safety.
The lava burst descended.
Her shield crinkled.
Her world grew white-hot, but not before she lost her footing. Below, Dororo had turned to ash.
As she fell, Gwen hoped to God that when Caliban drained her vitality, or when she began to sizzle like a takoyaki, her Ghosting Amulet would trigger its Dimension Door, allowing her to teleport away. With her Essence, hopefully, her scars would heal. If not, maybe Babulya had a thing that could help.
Unbidden, a cacophonic burst of thunder broke overhead.
"There it is again!"
In Hpakan, where a dozen Magisters and Maguses gathered around a lumen-caster, the Mages were puzzling over the scene even now unfolding in Nanmati. Where the conversation had earlier centred around Jung-min's illicit use of Cloud Kill, now they had bigger problems.
"Perhaps it's drawn to the mana build-up?"
Despite the titanic battle occurring below, their eyes were drawn to a blue-white silhouette flittering in and out of the range of von Schlabrendorff's eye of providence.
"Think it's related to the Tyrant?"
Lutz von Schlabrendorff shook his head.
"Hass, get a team ready..."
Heedless of the CC penalty, Ichiro took his Captain away from the crumbling Dororo, mindful of his betrayal.
As versatile Yuki's synergy with her Kami could be, that very same connection made for a glaring weakness, which was that her consciousness conjoined with her construct, possessing the Miko's senses as a gateway into the material world.
Once a safe distance away, Ichiro felt a pang of guilt as he looked back at their Fudan allies, still standing atop the burning Dororo, facing the full fury of the Molten Guardian, a famed Asura of the inferno world.
That a member of the Lee family could still access an ancient deity of Korea's long lost Shamanistic faith wasn't something anyone could have predicted. Likewise, that Seoul would stoop so low as to use Cloud Kill, even in its non-lethal capacity, was unthinkable by any rational Mage.
Was winning that important? Ichiro took in a lung full of fresh air, stunned at Seoul U's twisted conviction.
"Ichiro..." Yuki moaned in his arms, her pale body flushed and welting from the sensory feedback, even now aflame with the sensation being burned alive, yet lacking the sweet surrender of unconsciousness.
"Annul Pain!" Ichiro invoked his magic, exhaling as Yuki's spasm thankfully ceased, dispelling Dororo.
"I know, Yuki-sama, but..." Ichiro looked up, wondering just what a Mind Mage could do at a time like this. Above the Void sorceress, he saw the monster's assault descend without mercy.
Run, you baka! Ichiro's throat constricted.
But Fudan did not flee.
Instead, what occurred betrayed all logic and expectation.
Without warning, Gwen's celestial Kami tackled the Sword Mage, sending her flying away, while her Asura Kami snatched Fudan's Diviner and leapt from Dororo's head.
Then, she fell into the now dispelled Dororo.
Then, the clouds broke overhead.
Then came a wyvern.
Gwen Song had a third Familiar?! Ichiro baulked. But no, that was impossible.
It was an enormous brute; the largest Ichiro had ever seen, descending from the heavens with a velocity that tore the air asunder.
Banking into a graceful arc, it made an effortless swoop past Seoul U's battle line, first snatching a surprised Sung Lee up in its jaws, then swatting their Air user so hard with its spiked, van-sized tail that the Mage descended like a meteor.
In a matter of seconds, less than the time it took for him let loose a bewildered "NANI?" the Seoul team was reduced to a stunned Abjurer hovering alone over a flaming hillside, smothered with still tumbling lava.
"Uwa-!" Ichiro couldn't help but expel the uncouth utterance from his lips. In a moment, a feeling of uncontrollable sublimity erupted from his throat. "UWAAA?!"
The magma giant stumbled as the conduit of mana sustaining its presence in the Material world was cut off. Sung Lee was either dead or had been teleported away.
Gwen Song fell among the flaming debris, engendering a burst of brilliant Conjuration, then re-appeared a hundred meters away before she could sink into the fire, protected by two Illusory simulcrums.
She was safe!
But still, her unscathed escape filled Ichiro's mind with wild and wagging exaltations of incomprehensible awe.
His Master once said that some were born blessed by the Ōkami.
But how could one know that they were blessed by the Shinkai and watched over by the Sun Goddess; that they existed to walk the Kannagara no Michi?
Did, for example, having a wild fucking Wyvern descend from the heaven to eat your enemies then fly the fuck away count?!
An ejaculation of emotions erupted from the Yamabushi's heart, constricting his chest. It wasn't every day that a humbled monk bore witness to the will of the world.
Jung-min considered himself lucky that as a Mage attuned to Air, his superior reflexes was enough to mitigate a portion of the wyvern's kinetic blow even as it sundered his unsuspecting body. His shield had shattered near-instantly, but the split-second was enough for him to shift his momentum.
When he came to once more, he was on the forest floor.
It would seem that lady luck had not abandoned him even in his direst hour, for he had crashed through the soft canopy, then landed in the rotten, mud-strewn undergrowth.
Something had broken for sure, for Jung-min couldn't move his limbs, although his physical infirmity was nothing when compared to what awaited him. As the number one son, Sung Lee was without fault in all matters. As such, the responsibility for Seoul U's catastrophe of an IIUC would fall to Jung-min. For not only had the bastardly Jung-min invited trouble by harassing Eunae, their little cousin on Fudan's team, he had also used illicit magic on fellow contestants, disqualifying the potentially victorious Sung Lee, the team's saviour.
It was a good narrative; he had to admit. Sung Lee was a good fit for the next family head.
"Hahaha!" Jung-min then recalled that the wyvern had snatched up Sung Lee like a dog treat. "That's too funny."
"Ook?" A hairy face appeared overhead, an inch away from his face.
"Ook?" Another joined the first.
"Ook?" A third.
Jung-min's laughter choked in this throat, and not because laughing drew agony from his torso. Turning his head, he gazed toward his dominant hand where his Contingency Ring would be.
Sitting on said hand and weighing down said limb, was an enormous macaque with a bulbous red ass, bearing her fangs.
"Ook, Ook!" "Ook!"
"OOK!" "OOK!" "OOK!" "OOK!"