Golos nullified the Quicksilver Fuda he had stolen from Ryxi once he was a safe distance away from the commotion, feeling a heady rush course through his demi-divine body.
Snatching the "Calamity" from certain doom without endangering his own life had been something he’d mulled about nightly, and now he had done it.
Wyverns weren't made for dancing, but Golos reflexively performed an aerial barrel-roll.
The only thing to dampen his spirit was that the meal he had earlier acquired disappeared in a burst of silver. It was the Human's Contingency Ring, he knew: all the big-wig humans had one, but a drake could only hope.
As for what came next, he should be free in no time at all! Unlike the bookworm Ryxi, Ruxin always made good on his promises!
“Never in my life,” Lutz von Schlabrendorff remarked to the proctors stationed in the village hall of Hpakan. “Have I ever seen someone disqualified via impromptu Wyvern.”
“Perhaps he's an agent of karma,” a second proctor noted. “Sometimes, the actions one takes are an affront to both heaven and earth.”
There was a brief flash of Conjuration.
“Talk about bad luck.” A third proctor observed the contingency trigger. “Who would believe us if we were to spin a tale? Thunder Wyverns don’t gro- Why's it doing a barrel roll? Is it circling back?”
"No, it's gone." A fourth fiddled with the rangefinder.
“Maybe the girl knows the wyvern?” A fifth raised a finger.
“You mean, like old chums?” the third snorted.
“If she could command a tier-ten draconic-class Magical Beast to initiate a surgical strike, why would she need to participate in something as pedestrian as the IIUC?" the fourth snorted. "Why not just apply herself to the Tower as the first acolyte in the history of Spellcraft to tame an adult Thunder Wyvern? I’ll put in a good word with Berlin. We’ll take her, no questions asked.”
The rest of the Magisters sipped their tea while von Schlabrendorff mulled over the aftermath.
“Regardless, Fudan and Kyoto remain,” he said at last. “Inform Magister Kim to collect his students. Explain to him for now, Seoul U forfeits, casus fortuitus. If Seoul plays it smart, we shall leave it at that. They act up, that's at their own peril. As for Jung-min, the committee demands an example is made. Remind Kim to tell his employers that participation in the IIUC, as it is with the Mageocracy, is a privilege, not a right.”
“Shouldn’t it be 'casus Draco?'" Another Magus burst into appreciative laughter.
“Let’s hope it's minus dracones from here on.” Von Schlabrendorff’s brow twitched. “I don’t envy anyone having to explain another incident to Brussels.”
“Ha, what are the chances of it happening again?”
The Chief Proctor grunted.
“Where's our team?”
“They should be arriving, sir...” Hass marked the map. “...right about now.”
"Good. Once Kim is gone, bring Magister Walken..."
Perhaps the most disturbing thought to come out of the whole ordeal, once Gwen forced herself to re-orientate her bearings, was Walken's displeasure. It was a sentiment as off-putting as it was disturbing, but she couldn't shake the fact that for her "own good", Eric had expressly forbidden acts of impulsive martyrdom.
It was just as well that there was a lot on her plate: Golos, Ayxin, the Yinglong, what she had told Uncle Jun, Mayuree's mind-fog, and the IIUC, but for now, there was a more pressing concern.
Nanmati was on fire.
When the great lava-thing lost its mana-link, it exploded in every which direction, erupting like a volcano, spraying ash and burning brimstone over the wooden village.
Meanwhile, her two simulacrums, each a modified Mirror Image, independently pantomimed, drawing the attention of precisely no one.
"I am over here! You'll never catch me!" one said.
"Over here, you big lug!" The other one winked.
Suddenly, without warning, they ran in opposite directions.
Before she could respond, her companions arrived.
“Gwen!” Mayuree’s voice came across their channel before Caliban’s half-baked form could be seen running across the hardening lava. Comically, Caliban had Mayuree strapped to its back like a spider with a bundle of eggs, so that when it ran, she added to the Void-beast's aberrant visage. “How could you! Why didn’t you save yourself!”
“I am fin- Oh God! Puahaha!” When Mayuree came closer, Gwen saw that her friend had received a perm from the flash-fire, spontaneously engendering a horrible afro.
“You could have died!” Mayuree burst into tears. “It’s not funny!”
“GWEN! HOW COULD YOU!”
Lulan Blinked into Gwen's vicinity, then gripped Gwen's collar with both hands balled and white-knuckled.
“Alright, alright.” Gwen pulled out her Amulet, noting that the Core had been spent. “Grill me later, Lulu, the bloody village is on fire.”
“What about him?” Lulan pointed to the floating Abjurer.
“Oi!” Gwen hollered at Yoon-Seok with a blare from Clarion Call. “Is your team forfeiting?”
It took the Abjurer a few seconds to reignite his cognitive functions.
“I need to find my brother!” he called back, drifting back and forth. “I request a ceasefire! Has anyone seen Sung? Or Jung-min?”
“Good enough.” Gwen turned back to the burning village. What she should be feeling was spine-tingling horror. Instead, she felt a light-headed chirpiness which she could only attribute to the thrill of surviving a near-death encounter. “Where’s Yuki and Ichi?”
“They left us!” Lulan hissed like a trodden cat.
“Don’t be an idiot.” Gwen patted down her friend's frizzled hair. “They did what they’re supposed to do and expected to do. You, me, and afro-Mia are the idiots. For the future, we need to work out a who-saves-who contingency plan.”
A Teleportation Circle manifested mid-air.
A party of proctors stepped through the Astral tear.
“Spread out and control the damage,” the leading Mage declared as he stepped through, speaking to his peers before turning to Gwen. “Contestant Jung-min and Sung Lee have been sent back to the CCP Tower at Dali. Additionally, in violation of article seven, section four, involving the malicious employment of sanctioned spells against Magical personnel, I declare that Seoul University’s IIUC credentials are suspended pending further review. Remaining members of Seoul University shall leave the competition area and return to Hpakan to report to Chief Proctor von Schlabrendorff.”
Above, as though suddenly recalling something of dire importance, Seoul's Abjurer made for the central hut.
"Fudan, Kyoto, you may return to your respective duties."
Gwen exhaled a breath of relief. Now, with Seoul U's rightful expulsion, only two teams remained. Insofar as she was concerned, Fudan had won.
“That leaves just Kyoto and us.” Lulan channelled her inner Richard before making a chopping motion with her hand. “Yuki and Ichiro are here. If they’re wounded, maybe we could…”
“Whoa, cool your jets.” Gwen reflexively checked for lumen-recorders before reminding herself that the Chief Proctor needed no such thing to craft compelling reality television. “Trust me. We'll do this fair and square. Whatever Kyoto thinks they’ve got, I’ve got better.”
Lulan nodded, caught between faith and instinct.
All around them, the Magisters from the IIUC committee moved about the village, quenching fires with magical items or spells and attending to the villagers who were burned or injured. At first, when a number of corpses were unearthed, Gwen bristled with injustice. But then the rescuers lifted Lulan’s hut, the hypocrisy of the carnage alone was enough to engender a minute of inconsolable oppression from the Fudan party.
“Mia, go with Lulu and offer them some compensation.” Gwen wasn’t sure if this was the right thing to do, or if it helped, but she couldn't just shrug and leave.
Her companions nodded, then went about their solemn duty.
Behind her, both Yuki and Ichiro appeared. The two had returned earlier, though they had chosen to first help with the damage to the village.
“Hey. You’re safe.” Gwen exhaled. “Sorry for what happened.”
After doubly taxing herself, Yuki appeared paler than a snow-spirit. “Allow me to apologise for our retreat, Gwen-san. You stood to face that Molten Guardian while we showed our cowardice.”
“No worries,” Gwen dismissed their apology. “No need for drama. You did what’s right.”
“We are very shameful.” Ichiro bowed from the waist.
“Entirely forgiven.” Gwen felt that the Japanese habit of excessive piety was in itself a form of annoying passive-aggressiveness: like they were trying to guilt trip her anger. “I am not even upset.”
“We can pay for your item to be replaced,” Yuki suddenly announced. “Please, it’s the least we can do.”
“Alright, deal.” Gwen nodded quickly, her dour mood leaving scant room for kindness. “I’ll bill you the invoice.”
“This makes us feel less burdened, thank you.” Ichiro bowed again in return. “Was that a wyvern?”
“Who knows?” Gwen averted their imploring eyes. Instead, she looked toward the heavens. “What a magnificent occurrence that it came to our aid. How fortuitous, eh?”
The Japanese duo agreed.
“Well,” she smiled back. “I guess our alliance is at an end. Ichi, Yuki, may the best team win from here.”
The trio exchanged measured looks, followed by weighty handshakes.
"Indeed, Gwen-san.” Yuki's cheeks glowed with anticipation. “We shall put in the greatest effort.”
“Gwen, they came home with us,” Mayuree remarked to the scene below.
When the trio returned to La War, they were followed by a stream of monkeys swinging from tree to tree, forming a great expedition. After alighting at the village’s bramble barrier, the triumphant trio, together with the village's defence, were met by the Matriarch of the macaque, who had come to see Gwen.
“You brought back the troop." Richard emerged, together with Lea. “They’re friendly, I hope.”
“Friendly enough.” Gwen approached the Matriarch, flanked by Ariel and Caliban. “Matriarch?”
“Ook! Ook! Eek! EEEK!”
“EE! Ee? Eee!”
“She says she wants to thank you for delivering their enemy.” Lea appeared beside the Kirin, translating Kirin for Gwen even as Ariel passed on the Matriarch’s thoughts. “She wants to know if there’s anything else you want. A service of some sort.”
“We did?” Gwen glanced at Mayuree, who looked to Lulan, who shrugged. “How?"
“Ook! Ook, Eek!”
"You er... gave her a Mage? They did things- terrible, unspeakable things."
"What kind?" Gwen made a face.
"Unspeakable." Lea looked at Richard, then at Gwen. "As I am not familiar with the anatomy of humans or monkeys."
The party allowed that to sink in.
"So," Gwen changed the topic. "What can we do for them?"
“She wants to know what she can do for you,” Lea translated. "A monkey always pays her debts."
An idea came to Gwen's head.
Behind Richard, just beyond the bramble wall, she could see Shwe the alderman and the rest of the villagers holding staves and sticks, ready to defend their village against the Wildland macaques. Though Gwen knew the beasts preferred Wildland flora, magical creatures were infamously omnivorous.
“Lea.” Gwen’s expression took on a feeling of keen industry. “Ask if Mrs Boss is averse to lasting peace in the region. We’ll supply them with food, and I’ll be happy to offer another two bottles of Maotai. All they have to do is observe our workers, then you know; monkey sees, monkey do.”
From a grey, drizzling sky, the wet continued, bringing with it its usual assortment of problems. Though stung by the kinks in Fudan's teamwork and communication, Gwen resolved to leave them for the aftermath of the competition. Now, with external threats removed, her real work would begin, requiring every measure of her time and concentration.
First, she sent out Anita and Lulan with a team of villagers to repair the roads and bolster the stability of their transport infrastructure.
Then, she experimented with the monkeys. Though her macaque mercenaries were ill-suited for disciplined labour, they made for excellent patrollers. Roving as a hooting pack, the monkeys chased away Earthen Gobs, Snots and other Wildland fauna as they roved from camp to camp, having a great lark.
Gwen and Mayuree meanwhile, worked to put her plan into action.
Drifting south and swinging by Kamaing, she first attempted to convince Jiantong's village to find gainful employment through herself.
"We'll treat everyone the same, equal pay, equal benefits," Gwen appealed to the alderman. First, she would offer diplomacy. If that didn't work, she could be convincing in other ways. "It's an extra hour's trek, I know, but our Mages will open a new path through the macaque's territory. You'll be safe if you go through that."
"How can we trust you?" The Alderman understandably had his reservations, considering that the Chinese Mages that had come to help them had evaporated. According to his story, some liberties had been taken by Jiantong's Vice Captain with the local women as well. While consensual, the understanding had been one of quid pro quo; the problem was that having given many a tit, the chief's family had received no tat.
It was at this juncture that Gwen noticed the alderman, a middle-aged man, was eyeballing her tightly wound figure.
"Gwen." Mayuree, who had been quiet this whole while, interrupted their conversation before Gwen switched plans. "Didn't the alderman from the first village give you something of a token?"
"Oh?" Gwen recalled that indeed, she did have proof of her trustworthiness. With a flick of her wrist, she performed a quick sleight of hand, then produced a piece of jade. "I was given this by the alderman of a lowland village. He said to show it if we were to run into problems."
Kamaing's leader blinked. "You saved Takaung? We have one of our own in the monastery."
"With this, can you trust us?" she proposed with an edge to her voice.
"I need to verify this with the abbot." The sweating alderman quickly left. Meanwhile, after praising Mayuree, Gwen inspected the relatively prosperous township from the second floor of the hall. As she had observed on her last visit, Kamaing was the most populated of the four municipalities and would have afforded Jiantong a significant advantage.
After twenty minutes, the alderman returned with a dozen others.
"We will work." The man returned the mutton-jade solemnly, averting his eyes. "Please make it safe for us to travel."
"Wonderful!" the girls cooed. "I'll let the Boss know at once!"
"Ah, yes." Gwen figured now was as good a time as any. "I'll introduce her. If you can keep your working relationship up, I dare say much of Kamaing's troubles will soon be over!"
After the successful recruitment of at three hundred able bodies, Gwen moved to execute the most pivotal part of her plan. With Mayuree cradled protectively in her barrier, she proceeded toward the jade mine to meet with Manager Mingyi Mok.
From the sky, the mine itself was typical; an open pit punctured into the Arakan basin were seams of jade ran rich through the metamorphic rock, compressed by aeons of seismic pressure into vivid veins of serpentine, quartz, nephrite and jadeite. It were small operations such as these that produced Khotan and Feicui, the basis of the House of M's northern expeditions. Originally, each of the villages had staked different sections of the dig, but Gwen saw no reason why many hands couldn't make light work.
As with third-world mines everywhere, the conditions were upsetting to anyone possessed of a social conscience, involving the sort of operational work and health that existed only in nightmares. From the stench of the place as soon she and Mayuree flew into the pit, she guessed that the dozen or so dredged pools of fetid water, tens of meters across and swarming with insects, were not only neglected but had been collating everything from human waste to local fauna to monsoonal run-off.
The roads moving into and out of the mine were likewise strewn with mud, with deep trenches carved from the wagons that came and went, immeasurably complicating future operations.
As for the jade mine itself, it seemed that magical means had been used to collapse entire walls into a canyon from which miners would then pick out by hand the shards and blocks of nephrite and jadeite. From the depth, workers then transported stones up a human chain to carriers, who then slogged their way from the interior of the mine up to a station, where the rocks were inspected, weighed and recorded until finally, they were transported down the main arterial highway down to Mandalay's regional headquarters.
On the northern cliff of the mine, overlooking the operation, was a series of huts made from galvanised iron and fibrous-concrete sheeting. Within the abode, cloistered in relative comfort, the girls found the Manager, a bulbous man thrice the circumference of a local, attended by two young women.
Manager Mingyi visibly quaked when the two girls descended from the grey heavens without warning, spilling a bowl of piping hot pho in his haste to kowtow. After Gwen and Mayuree introduced themselves, he obediently gathered the dozen sub-managers and supervisors under his control, most of which were Southern Burmese loyalists to the House of M. A few, Gwen noticed, were Han Chinese.
“These are our jade inspectors.” Mingyi mopped the sweat from his quivering jowls. As the first obese individual Gwen had seen in Kachin, Mingyi grew fat not in the manner of portly western men but the rotund jackfruit.
“I’d like to see the accounts.”
“The… accounts?” The man's eyes widened, his belly quaking like a flan. "You don't want to see the jadeite?"
“No. I want historical statements.” Gwen turned her striking irises upon the line of pallid men stinking of sweat. “I will need to see paper records of how much jade is being produced historically over the last twenty-four months, as well as the mine's outgoings.”
“Ah…” Mingyi stammered. “Of course.”
The man wobbled across the office, its floorboards straining to hold his weight. “Right here, ma’am.”
“Manager Mingyi.” Mayuree added her scowl to Gwen's. “Are you forgetting who I am? I am a representative of the House itself. I have operational authority from here to Mandalay.”
Aww, Gwen gushed. Business Mayuree was adorable.
“I am not sure what you mean, Miss Mayuree.” The Manager pulled out stack after stack of half-rotten paper dank from the monsoonal air. It would appear the cupboard was not moisture sealed. “It’s all here… it’s…”
“MISTER MINGYI!” Gwen snapped her fingers. A stack of arm-thick reports fell onto the mahogany table in the centre of the man’s disgusting food-strewn desk. “These are district reports from Magus Maymaruya going back the last five years. I acquired them while in Yangon. Do I have a reason to be worried?”
In truth, her "reports" were the accounts for the Centurion Project, but the manager couldn't know that.
“Of course not.” To her astonishment, Mingyi attempted to straighten his spine. “But as you can see, with weather like ours, the records don’t keep too well. Still, I wish you the best of luck in matching them. Mister Wong, our accountant, will do his utmost to help.”
Lifting herself on her toes, Gwen walked toward the table, then sat with her legs crossed over to one side. Despite the unkind contour and practical nature of her skin-suit, the sight of a first-class woman from a first-world city titillated the line of men Mingyi had gathered for her pleasure.
Mayuree stood to her right, whispering of what her Scry had found in the mine, in between the walls of the building, and in hidden basements.
Gwen’s netherworld serpent slithered into being.
As one, the Manager and his men fell to their knees. The weaker of the bunch retched while the others whimpered.
“I am going to ask one more time.” Gwen crossed her legs. “Mr Wong. Step up.”
The man crawled forward.
“Have you ever stolen from the mine?”
“SHAAA!” Caliban opened its carapace.
“Oo! Buddha have mercy!”
“One chance,” Gwen helpfully noted while Caliban crawled into her lap, drooling grey goo. “Now answer.”
“I have sinned!” The accountant quivered. “My men pilfered from pit 17 and 21 last year, and 14 the year before!”
“Lies. Grotesque and ugly lies. But even a little honesty is better than none. Maybe you’ll have a limb left when this is over. Go stand to the right.”
“No! I also stole from pit 2! And I took bribes from Mr Mok and Mr Gu!”
“Wong, how dare you!”
“Miss Song, he's delirious!”
Gwen leapt from the table.
“CONFESS!” she let loose a bark, smothering the men with Dragon-fear. “Your wives and your children are waiting for you. Your nice homes in Yangon, in Mandalay, your maids and servants, all waiting for the return of their master. But I am not here to play around, gentlemen. I am here on a mission. I am here from the House of M! I know you have stolen, I know how much you have stolen. The worm is Caliban, a Void Beast born from the righteous hunger of an Old One: when Caliban eats you from the inside out, there will no return to the eight-fold path. You won’t even wander the endless plains of Limbo. What awaits you will be oblivion. OBLIVION! YOU-you son of a hog, what’s your name?”
“Money or mercy?”
“Then go and stand to the right. You and I are going to go over the books, and if I don’t find the answers I am looking for..."
A roll of thunder fulminated across the mine’s exterior.
"EEEEE!" Ariel passed by the window, glorious and awe-inspiring.
“...then our company will be trimming the fat.”
“So.” Gwen walked a circle around the men, each cowed under her electric gaze, watching as Manager Mingyi’s face turned a shade of green. “To reiterate. I am here on a mission of mercy. If you chose oblivion, that’s your choice. If the little wealth you have collated is worth more than reincarnation, then so be it.”
She patted Caliban, who opened its carapace to unleash arm-thick tentacles of red and blue.
“The last man to confess gets eaten by Caliban.”
“And that’s how production will increase by fifty per cent, is it?” Richard, Anita and Lulan joined Gwen and Mayuree at the mine by the evening, having reached the entrance with La War's labourers. For the foreseeable future, the party was to be stationed in the managerial office to implement Gwen’s desired changes.
“Simple, isn’t it?” Gwen threw down the stack of rotten accounts. “When a NoM’s greed is enough to endure my Dragon-fear, you know they’re hiding a lot more than they let on. I am having them cough up what they ate as well, with any luck, anything between six-months to a year's supply may soon be 'uncovered'.”
“Money makes the world go round.” Richard sipped his beer, confiscated from the Manager's private larder. “Why am I not surprised.”
“Hopefully, once we implement hygiene protocols, safety measures, basic protective equipment and you guys complete the railway I asked for, efficiency will increase ten-fold. For now, I’ve allocated for a quarter of the funds we've recovered to pay for additional workers from Kamaing. With the monkeys acting as escort, the roads should be safe."
“How are you doing all this?” Anita sipped her porridge. Thanks to Ying’s quasi-magical pill, she was feeling much better and had been well enough to contribute to the excavations. “Are you an Economics Major? Are you studying to take on a Manufactorium?”
“Nothing of the sort.” Gwen awkwardly chuckled. “I read a lot in my spare time.”
“You know six Schools of Magic, and you have time left to read about governing NoMs?”
“Gwen’s going to be a Tower Master someday,” Lulan pointed out. “She needs to know all this.”
“Well, then Master Song,” Anita drily observed, smacking her lips. “I am glad to be on your team.”
“Thanks, Ann,” Gwen smirked somewhat stiffly. “I hope it’s enough to beat Kyoto.”
“I am sure it is,” Richard piped in with a voice full of confidence. “Walken said the quest is about improving the region’s production, stability, the lives of the people, and the amount of resource transported back to Yangon. I somehow doubt Kyoto’s priests and priestesses know accounting and work-health-safety! Ha! I doubt they’ve laboured with NoMs in their whole lives. Wondrous their craft may be, the laziness of labourers and the greed of administrators are beyond magic."
“Nicely put, Dick!” Gwen raised a stubby.
Bottles clinked. Their victory was at hand.
From here on, Fudan had just under a week to set things in order; then, they would push back toward Yangon, hopefully meeting Bai and his team halfway, signalling the culmination and conclusion of their first mission in the International Inter-University Competition.