From day one in Mandalay, it was self-evident that there was insufficient food, medicine, machinery and materials for all four universities to attain a balanced ration of CCs. When inevitably, fights broke out, leading to impromptu duels all over the city, the teams convened to work out a formal system of splitting the resources without actually setting fire to the whole thing.
The resulting solution was a reasonable point-system where duels determined the amount of goods each team accumulated. The result was that having sent their ace members northward, Seoul and Jiantong staggered, while Fudan and Kyoto proved similarly matched. To further ensure fairness, a proctor was invited to supervise the duels, after which the assets were distributed accordingly.
"I wonder if the northern expedition teams are working as amicably as we are," remarked Anwei, a member of Jiantong's supporting team, much to the mirth of his peers.
"I believe Gwen would welcome something like this," Tei assured them, thinking of their selection trial. "Rest assured; she works very well with others."
On the fourth day, Jiantong received news that their Captain had forfeited the match. Embarrassed beyond measure, Tei supervised the splitting of their rival's loot between the Koreans, the Japanese, and Fudan.
"I heard your Ace was the one who forced Jiantong to capitulate," Chong Jei, a cautious member of Seoul U, observed as he received their surplus manifest. "I hope she's not thinking of challenging our Lee Sunbae-nim."
"Gwen is fully open to cooperation," Tei said to his Korean counterpart.
On the fifth day, Seoul received news that they were returning home. The girls cried while the young men fell into a disbelieving stupor. Kyoto and Fudan agreed to split the loot from Seoul U fifty-fifty.
"..." A Kyoto member held his tongue lest Tei unleashed another prophetic curse.
"That's our Gwen," Eunae declared proudly after returning from consoling her Korean compatriots. "I heard she took out Sung Lee, Si-Won and Jung-min. The three might already be back in Korea."
"Wocao, Gwen is a monster." Jiro whistled.
"Just Kyoto to go then." Rene waved at their final opponents. "I can't wait to hear it first hand. Gwen, taking out two teams back to back? I wonder if she bothered to take a breather in between the slaughter. Maybe in two days, we go home the victor."
The rest of Fudan's team members took a moment to imagine Caliban hunting down Kyoto's Mages one by one.
With thus a week to reorganise their northward expedition, Tei and Kyoto U's representative, an Onmyoji called Kyu Sakamoto, began to pressure the local government for logistical support. Unsurprisingly, they initially met with ceaseless stonewalling until, without any particular reason, the provincial governorship relented, gifting the teams with vehicles and materials galore.
"Unexpected boons," Jiro, always open to a good fight, suggested something was afoot. "Is never a good thing."
"It doesn't matter; we proceed as planned, we'll be fine as long as we're careful," Fudan's Captain assured his team.
So it was that on the tenth day since arriving in Mandalay, with little to no knowledge of events in Kachin, the teams set out, protecting a great train of supplies.
It was just as well that they now possessed military cargo trucks, not to mention NoM operators. Though their lumbering engines were decades old and likely from the last war, it would suffice for the journey north. Only a week ago, Tei was looking into buying buffalo and donkey carts. As for critical supplies such as potions and medicines, those remained in Tei's ring.
At the forefront of the convoy was Kyoto, clearing the landscape with their communally conjured Kami. For the journey ahead, the teams had agreed on cooperation over conflict. Rene worked on filling potholes and securing earthen banks with quickly solidifying pillars of Magma. Tei meanwhile, planted wards to keep away magically inclined fauna. As for their NoM labourers, the masses riding along within and atop the trucks were cared for by Kyoto's Abjurer, Yumi, who worked with Eunae in looking after the three-hundred NoMs who accompanied the convoy, dispensing minor fortifications of strength, spirit and stamina.
"If fighting starts…" Tei informed both parties, for it didn't take a veteran to taste the tension in the air. "Gather the NoMs between the first and last six vehicles. I have wards set up."
"As you will, Tei-san." Yumi and the others were happy to oblige. "If something terrible were to happen, do you think the examiners will intervene?"
"Not while the competition is ongoing," Tei dispensed his wisdom freely. "That's how it is, I am afraid. Our mission may prove no less complicated than that of our A Team in Kachin."
Gwen had never been to Indaw, a small township adjacent to a lake mid-way between Mandalay and Kachin. But as a fan-girl, she did know that it was the setting for Burmese Days, George Orwell's seminal novel and that the author's home sat in the next town, Katha, only five kilometres over.
But in this world, there was no Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Had there been someone of Orwell's talent, their worthiness in a colonial backwater like this would have manifested only in Spellcraft, meaning they would have fled Burma at the first sign of Aung San's independence movement.
What remained then, was a fishing township of ten thousand souls on the shores of Indaw lake, one of the smaller bodies of water to grace Kachin's northern catchment, fertile with loam and fecund with rice paddies, filled to the brim with mortal and magical flora and fauna.
As their half-kilometre troop of labourers made slow but steady progress down from Kachin through the main arterial highway, Gwen was beset by a new and unexpected problem, one that jolted her from the Zen of micromanagement.
Mayuree had come down with a fever.
That Mages had illnesses was only something she had experienced herself, though her episodes were usually Void-related. What troubled Gwen was the timing of the occurrence. Now that victory was at hand, and they were on their way to meet with Tei and the rest of the team, Mayuree suddenly fell ill?
It took a significant leap of faith to believe such a coincidence.
And yet, she couldn't discount the fact that Mayuree had flown with her through wind and rain. That the weather had been humid, hot and cold, and that they had both gone through an excess of stressful encounters of late in a tropical, insect-infested region.
If that wasn't enough to bring on a burning fever, then what was? God knew what pathogens lurked in the undergrowth or their drinking water.
First, she had attempted a Remove Disease injector. When that didn't work, she abducted the Abbott of the monastery at Kamaing to La War to check on her friend. When the well-respected healer couldn't diagnose Mayuree, Gwen felt at wit's end. Logic told her to leave Mayuree at La War while she brought over Eunae, but a growing sense of paranoia brought on by Mia's glamoured disposition made her risk aversive. Finally, she relented to bring over Kyoto's Captain and Vice Captain to examine Mayuree, hoping that perhaps, the Japanese had an idea.
After a suite of diagnostic magic, as well as a consultation with presumably a relevant Kami, Ichiro had this to say.
"She's not sick," the Shugenja informed her. "It's her Divination that's acting up."
"What?" Gwen and the others from Fudan looked from Mayuree to their Japanese counterparts.
"Mayuree-san, how do you feel? Have you seen any visions?"
"That can't be. I don't feel fearful or frightened," Mayuree protested feebly, her face unusually pallid and her brows covered with a snail-sheen of sweat. The Diviner had remained lucid, though she couldn't hold down food and she tossed and turned in her sleep with the vigour of one possessed.
"There's a charm suppressing your talent." Ichiro drew a line of pale Enchantment from Mayuree's forehead. "Your Sigil is alerting you, but an Enchantment in your mind is preventing you from acting on it. That is what is causing the fever."
"Can you do something, Ichi-san?" Gwen croaked, unused to seeing sickness and suffering in those to whom she had grown close. Before they left, Walken had advised that they should minimise disruption to the competition; now that Fudan had it in the bag, she was willing to expend certain certainties to repair Mayuree. "Name your price."
"We are happy to help." Yuki stopped Ichiro before the exchange grew uncomfortable. "A fellow Mage is ill. It is all of our duty to ensure she recovers."
"But she isn't sick, Yuki-sama," Ichiro pointed out. "I fear Gwen-san has problems of her own; ones we cannot help."
Which meant they should mind their own business, Gwen deciphered.
"Ichiro-kun." Yuki dialled her imploring eyes to eleven. "Please."
"I don't have access to a dispelling mandala," Ichiro confessed, red-faced and embarrassed. "It's not that I do not wish to help, Gwen-san, just that it isn't safe. Without a mandala to drain the embedded magic, the feedback could make Mayuree-san's condition worse."
Which ultimately led to their present condition involving a delirious Mayuree, bundled and strapped to Ariel's back, kept snug and warm and shielded from the rain by Lea. As an offering of compassion, Yuki, Masahiro and Hiroki cleared the road ahead with Dororo, working with Richard, Lulan and Anita to excavate the overgrown highway buried under rubble and ruin.
At night, Gwen slept with Mayuree in her Habitat, enduring the girl's feverish mumbling and muttering even when cradled against Gwen's cool dermis. Outside, her dogs patrolled their surroundings, protecting their troop of NoM labourers sleeping beside rows of carts, punctuated by the rare motor vehicle.
Two days later, from half a kilometre up in the air, Gwen caught sight of Indaw.
"There's Gwen!" Eunae waved as Gwen alighted among her fellow Mages from Fudan, a bundle strapped to her back.
"Eunae! Mayuree's sick!" Contrary to the Cleric's great expectations, Gwen landed with a stumble. "We need to do that thing. Are you good to go? Tei, how long are we resting in Indaw?"
"We planned to move tomorrow morning," Tei hailed his Vice Captain, who hastily bowed. "The NoMs need rest. What's wrong with Mayuree?"
"Ichiro says she's glamoured and her Divination is clogged," Gwen crudely explained. "Her brain is melting."
Before Tei could speak, a furious Kitty pushed past Fudan's Captain.
"How could you!" Kitty's crow-black scowl sliced at Gwen's conscience. "You liar! You said Mia would be safe!"
"Mia IS safe." Gwen fumbled for words, finding none that would suffice, serving only to infuriate a livid Kitty who saw evidence to the contrary.
"I don't believe you!" Kitty snarled. "Liar!"
"Get off me!"
"Kitty, calm yourself, Mayuree needs help," Tei intervened. "Gwen?"
"I need at least an hour with Eunae in the Portable Habitat," Gwen explained, too anxious to bother with Kitty's prodding, settling instead for eventual hindsight. "Tei, you'll have to trust me. Can you hold the fort?"
"Sure," Tei told the others to clear out and go find the incoming team and their labourers. "I'll take care of the rest. You take care of Mayuree."
"I am ready." Eunae nodded. "Master Walken gave me everything I needed."
"Gwen, please!" Kitty reached out to peel the groggy Mayuree from Gwen's back. "Where are you taking her? What are you doing?"
"KITTY! NOT NOW!" Gwen barked, striking the girl with dragon-fear, driving the pleading Ice Mage back. After three days of not sleeping, her patience was on a short fuse.
Kitty stumbled, dazed despite her best efforts.
"You may come in when I tell you." Gwen found a space between two trucks, canvased and well shielded from sight, then laid down the Habitat. "Tei, I am counting on you, let me know if anything's wrong. Eunae, let's go."
The Habitat opened its portal. Gwen authorised herself, Mayuree, Tei and Eunae, adding in Richard and Lulan just in case.
"STOP!" Kitty screeched. When she reached for the portal, she found its mirror-like surface incorporeal and intangible. "NO!"
"Miss Liang, compose yourself!" Tei glared. Kitty had been a perfect Captain's little helper the whole erstwhile in Mandalay, so it was off-putting to see the girl in such a wretched state. "Gwen knows what she's doing, and Mayuree will shortly return, so stop embarrassing us any further! You'll be on Vid-cast! Act professionally!"
When Kitty turned, her expression was such that he reflexively allowed a half-syllable of Dust Shield to touch the tip of his tongue. Thankfully, Ice Mages cooled rapidly.
"Sorry," Kitty mumbled, then stalked away, likely trying to find somewhere dark and cold to brood.
Tei shook his head, then met the gaze of Jiro and Rene, who had kept a safe distance as soon as Kitty began to act up.
"I told you she's in love," Rene remarked to Jiro. "The girl talks about nothing but Mayuree at night. Never had I thought an Ice Mage could be so fired up."
"But…" Jiro glanced at Kitty's retreating figure, then at the portal. "They're both girls?"
It took Eunae twenty minutes to set up the Dispelling Mandala Walken had taught.
"Magister Walken said that when dispelling persistent-effects like embedded Mind Magic, it's not the same as the disruption type Dispel," the girl explained as she drew lines onto the grey floor of the Habitat's interior space with a reagent dispenser. "The mandala's effects can be multiplied many times, depending on the type of material used. Right now, I am using a mithril and silver compound. The Magister couldn't find one in Yangon, so he took one from his private collection."
Wily old Eric seemed to have many things in his "private" collection, Gwen noticed. From marmalade to cigars to vintage wine to magical reagents.
"Is it going to work?"
"Seonsaeng-nim said it should dispel anything tier 6 and below without incident," Eunae returned her enquiry, evidently feeling impressed enough by Walken to use a culture-specific honorific. "We practised a few times. He's an excellent teacher."
"I suppose he's got his merits."
"You're so lucky," Eunae gushed.
Gwen felt conflicted. When they returned, there would be a tongue lashing from her excellent instructor, though for now, Eunae's worshipful tone made her skin crawl.
"I know Mayuree is important to you." Eunae seemed to enjoy their little role-reversal now that Gwen was the flustered one and she was the one helping. "But as long as we follow sir's instructions, Mayuree will be perfectly fine!"
"Magister, I think you should look at this." Evelyn Hass brought Chief Proctor von Schlabrendorff over to the Lumen-projector.
A day prior, half of the examiners' group had relocated to a mobile field base in Katha, from where they would witness the handover between the two convoys as the teams once again converged before moving up into Kachin. On the fourteenth day since commencement from Yangon, a declaration would announce that the first round of the qualifier was over, and contestants would then be sent home for a week of recuperation before embarking on the second round of the qualifiers.
"It better not be a dragon," von Schlabrendorff grumbled as he set down his coffee.
"I would prefer a dragon at this rate." Hass punched in a dozen glyphs in quick succession, zooming the map out. "A group of unregistered magic users just appeared in the lake's centre."
"What was there previously?"
"An old jetty sir, it wasn't anything suspicious…"
"None of our business, either way." Von Schlabrendorff motioned for the others to gather. "What's the House of M doing? Are they expecting our students to engage in extracurricular labour?"
"Looks like our hostiles numbers in the twenties." A third Magister operated his lumen-caster. "I am not seeing anyone with a significant mana signature but- WOA!"
"Is that a Swamp Hydra?" A fourth zoomed in on the shape that just appeared. "How are they transporting something that size through Teleportation Circles?"
"Two Hydras! Was there another force in Burma with so much resource?" The third wracked his brain for data. "Does a Frontier of this size even have that many mid-tier Mages?"
"I would presume the Rogue Mages are Aung San Yuzana's freedom fighters, from Nagaland," von Schlabrendorff remarked. "Pay them no heed. One assumes they're here to loot or destroy the supplies. Also, knowing where they're from, I don't think they're Hydras."
"Nagaland?" The fourth checked his notes. "Our Indian Protectorate?"
"Originally belonging to the Mon and the Pyu empires, then annexed to the Mageocracy, then lost in the Beast Tide," von Schlabrendorff reminded his Mages. "But yes. That's where the Tyrant is said to have originated."
"So the Tyrant is a..."
"And those are…"
"What else?" von Schlabrendorff scoffed. "Isn't it natural for Nagas to live in Nagaland?"
Yuki and her crew of Onmyoji were the first to notice the sudden change in the elemental composition of the air, sensing a wave of distress as the local Kami fled from the lake, dispersed by the disruption in the natural flow of the ley-lines' energy.
"Everyone!" Ichiro's voice boomed across the township, enhanced by his vocal prowess. "We're under attack! Monsters approach from the lake! Unidentified casters are moving into range!"
"Ichiro-san. We're here!"
"Captain Bai! Where is Gwen-san?"
"She's indisposed," Tei apologised. "We'll set up a perimeter for now."
"Then we'll do our part as well." Yuki joined the two men. "Dororo will shield the south entrance to the village, while Koishishi will guard the west. Are we moving the convoy out?"
"You'll have to go first." Tei nodded. "Gwen's immobile for the time being, and it's too dangerous to spread our forces along a battle line. We'll clean up the rear as soon as we're ready to mobilise."
Meanwhile, two to three hundred meters away, combat had been joined. A cacophony of elemental effects erupted where the lake met the village, sending up plumes of dark smoke where fire, earth and other volatile forces dismantled the old colonial dock. Towns with a population density like Indaw generally possessed a local militia involving a handful of low-tier Mages led by a Senior Mage, accompanied by able-bodied NoM soldiers.
"They're sacking the town!" Ichiro scowled. "Bastards!"
"Tei, are we withdrawing?" Jiro drifted overhead, nodding in passing at Ichiro. "Mao! Look at those Hydras! A big green bastard and a purple one! I haven't seen one since Yunnan!"
"Is this a part of the test?" Anita, Rene, and the others had by now also located their Captain.
"Tei, they're not here for the town." Richard had finished erecting Walls of Water in a wide perimetre in an effort to calm the labourers. "They've spotted us, and they're coming here. Ichiro, can you take care of the NoMs? When the fighting starts they're going to panic."
Ichiro nodded. The last thing they needed was bodies adding to the anarchy.
"O Kami of the land and water, humble this one. Calm our disquieted hearts! PEACE!"
The Kotodama user sent out a ripple of magic with a sudden eruption of his baritone voice. Where his power word resonated, Fudan and Kyoto's hired labourers, together with local villagers who had fled toward the trucks, ceased their terrified milling and instead looked to the student Mages.
"Great work." Richard gave the man a thumbs up. "Load the NoMs up so we can draw the fighting away from the village. Jiro, Rene, you guys fought Hydras before?"
"Twice." Jiro rose into the air beside Richard. "It's their unlucky day that I am here."
"First time." Rene joined them. "BUT, I am sure well-done Hydras don't regenerate."
"I'll cover them." Anita followed, buffing the duo mid-flight.
"Don't damage the supplies!" From a Storage Ring, Tei produced four yellow parchments scrawled with red glyphs. "Ichiro, these are for your trucks. They're single use, effective against tier 5 and below."
He then leapt from vehicle to vehicle, activating the wards drawn on the canvas.
"Thank you, Bai-san." Ichiro received the Fuda, then retreated to reconvene with his team.
"Tei! They're here!" Jiro's voice came through the Message device. "Engaging!"
"Keep the Hydra at a distance! Stone Vaults of Taishan!"
Two-dozen tombstone pillars erupted from the soft ground; forming an impromptu Stonehenge around their circled convoy.
"God, that's morbid." Richard winced. "I think a few of the NoMs fainted."
"It's the Negative Energy." Tei Bai ignored the Water Mage's good-natured jab at his Clan's secretive arts.
"Tei, Richard, you want me on offence or defence?" Lulan asked the two defenders.
"Lulan, check on Gwen," Tei said. Lulan functioned best in close quarters, but first, they needed an electrifying distraction.
The Sword Mage disappeared into the portal.
"Here it comes!" Jiro's voice came through. "HO! LOOK AT THAT!"
Across the village, where Kyoto University was encamped, a giant mud-man with two holes for eyes was wrestling a six-headed Hydra into the earth, pummelling the thing to the ground and wrangling its heads one by one.
"Mao that's impressive!" At Fudan's defence perimeter, Jiro's burning passion became inspirited by Kyoto. Droning with a low voice, the Fire Mage's incantation grew to a crescendo as he reached the climactic conclusion of his tier 6, wide-range AoE. "PHOENIX PINIONS!"
Though no actual sound echoed, the members of Fudan imagined a great caw as a burst of flames escaped from Jiro's Firebird Spirit, growing in length and girth like a peacock's blooming feathers. Once the plumes of vivid, multi-coloured fire fanned out against the sky, they burst into three-dozen flaming arrows, then descended upon the incoming wave of enemy Mages who had barrelled past the NoM militia's non-existent battle line, flanked by a Hydra on either side.
A multitude of defensive magicks activated at once.
"Show off!" Rene laughed, her cheeks warm in the glow of the firelight, delighting in the inundation of Elemental Fire left by Jiro's show of force. "Salamander Skin!"
Suddenly, the Magma Mage clad herself in shifting plates of molten earth. Without pause, drawing glyphs in the air, she then pulled at the Para-Elemental Plane of Magma for a signature spell named after the enemies they were now facing.
"MAGMA HYDRA!" A clump of liquified earth burst from the ground, sprouting no less than five heads, each three meters tall. It was a turret-type spell, one which allowed three consecutive micro-fireball blasts from each of the five Hydra heads. For a defensive battle, there could be no better offence than feeding enemies into a kill-zone established by an endless array of lava blasts.
From above Fudan's convoy, a hail of ice began to descend.
"Crystal Shell!" Anita was ready to cover her two damage dealers.
"Dust Haze!" Unlike Jiro's multi-coloured fire or the scintillating beauty of Anita's crystal, Tei's aesthetics were downright depressing. From erected pylons of condensed dust drawn from the dismal Plane of Dust, a miasma spread, deadening all elemental effects caught within its range, transforming attacks into black snow.
Half a kilometre away, one of Kyoto's twin giants affected a great howl, flaking stone and flinging mud to abruptly metamorph into a molten colossus. It was the elemental-shift for which the Onmyoji was famed, and when it swung its limb, a torrent of fire, thick as a two-lane street, caught the air, turning the lake into a great burst of superheated steam. Where the blast had passed, Tei caught the sight of an enemy Mage peeling from the pack, his shield suddenly exhausted. A second later, the man was aflame, a human torch stumbling across the scorched turf.
Meanwhile, Fudan's Mages flanked their attackers from the right, suppressing the second Hydra with fire and magma. Unfortunately, the Hydra's rubbery skin proved resistant to heat, for heedless of the barrage, its six cobra-heads snatched NoM militiamen from in-between buildings.
A jet of odiously corrosive fluid ejected from between the maw of a thrashing Hydra head, smothering an unsuspecting member of Kyoto's team with a generous coating of slime.
The acid-clad victim immediately teleported away, leaving his shield to corrode and collapse.
"Forked Blast!" came a mid-tier assault from Rene, cowing the Hydra momentarily. "You guys' alright?"
A gesture of thanks from their compatriots arrived in the form of a boulder that crashed into Fudan's Hydra, sending it careening into a building.
"Oi, these Hydras have no—!" Rene called out.
A Fireball enveloped the Magma Mage, sending her skittering across the oily-streaked sky but otherwise unharmed.
"Refreshing your Mage Armour!" Anita called out from below.
"No need!" Rene returned the favour with a self-seeking Magma Bolt, sending an enemy backwards with a violent snap. "Barely singed me!"
By now, about three parties of enemy casters had begun to converge. Curiously, they appeared to be seeking something, for though they attacked the students, they avoided damaging the convoy.
"Compress our battle-line!" Tei called out to his team. "Stay within range of the tombstones!"
Though Tei had seen many a time when Mages by the hundreds worked together, it was the first time he had experienced the real chaos of a Mage on Mage, open field melee. Unlike battles against the Undead, whose monstrous wave tactics brought the occasional Wight or Spectral Rider, a fight such as this was pure anarchy.
More disturbingly, he could see that the incoming force was professionally trained, for they moved in four groups of five Mages each, with a minimum of five or six dedicated Abjurers. If the hostiles were to launch an all-out attack heedless of losses, Tei had no confidence he could protect the convoy. What he needed was a force multiplier from their side, like Kyoto's Kami dolls.
Then, as though conjured by a Wish, the Habitat's portal shimmered, materialising the rest of Fudan's team.
When Lulan burst into the pocket dimension of the Habitat, she discovered Gwen and Eunae puzzling over Mayuree's belayed foretelling.
"It's a trap!" Mayuree was trying to inform the two that this whole ordeal of coming to Kachin for the IIUC was folly and that Maymyint and the Tyrant were involved somehow. "Maymyint had offered me to the Tyrant! Marong tried to stop her, but I-I think I am on its list! If today's the fourteenth, then I am supposed to be in Nagaland already!"
"Calm yourself, Mia." Gwen cradled the girl in her arms, unsure what else she could do. "No one is taking you anywhere. Tell me from the beginning. What happened after you spoke to Maymyint?"
"She struck me with something, an Enchantment." Mayuree touched a finger to her sweat-stained brow. "I can't remember anything after that. It was like my whole mind was stuck in wool."
Eunae checked the mandala to ensure that they had performed the procedure correctly.
"We've dispelled something between tier 5 and 6," the Cleric informed her Vice Captain, pointing to the part of the patterned array on the floor that had grown dark. "The mandala is mostly used up."
"A memory-binding spell?" Gwen wished she had as much access to Mind Magic as Walken so that she could tell what was wrong with Mayuree.
"It seems so." Eunae turned to Mayuree. "Mia, we're in Indaw right now, and er... it's August."
"A-August?! Are you saying we're in Kachin? Right now?" Mayuree gripped Gwen's arm like a startled koala to a gumtree. "We can't be in Kachin! I was- I thought it was July! Oh, my Goddess!"
"Mia, we've almost won the first round of the IIUC," Gwen calmly intoned. "We have legions of Magisters with us, eight of the best from Fudan, ten from Kyoto and Mages from the House of M. It'll be fine."
"But—" Mayuree coiled like a cooked prawn, then was suddenly sick.
Gwen didn't mind the stink, although seeing her chippy Diviner in this state made her heart ache. Agonisingly, she thought of Kitty, who even now was outside ready to point accusatory fingers, feeling both guilt and annoyance.
"GWEN!" Lulan chose this moment to burst through the tear between dimensions. "We're under attack by Mages from the mountains!"
"Right now?" Gwen gingerly lifted herself to avoid splashing Mayuree's sick back into her friend's hair. It hasn't even been ten minutes after they ran the mandala, and now some vagabonds from the mountain were attacking them? The timing was far too perfect. "How?"
"They came from the lake. I don't know if they're after us, or the convoy, or the town, it feels like spells are flying everywhere, and Hydras!"
"Hold up, start from the beginning." Gwen struggled with Lulan's incoherent spiel. "Why Hydras?"
"They're not Hydras," Mayuree moaned. "They're Nagas, from Nagaland! Gwen, leave me-"
"Shhhh..." Gwen wiped her Diviner's mouth with a handkerchief.
Lulan stared at the newly recovered but doubly frantic Mayuree.
"Is Mia okay?"
"No, she's not," Gwen assessed grimly.
"They're here for me! They're recovering their Master's lost tithe!" Mayuree moaned.
Gwen stroked the whimpering Mayuree. If what Mayuree said was true, then the Tyrant was supposed to take delivery of the House of M's tithing in July. If so, was Mayuree right? Moreover, was this a ploy of Maymyint's? Were they getting the Tyrant to butt heads with the IIUC proctors? Admittedly, the competition would be delayed while the Magisters dealt with the dragon; if that's the case, what victory or change could the House of M attain? Likewise, if she assumed Aung San was involved somehow, what manner of independence could be preserved when a Tower rakes over Arakan with spellfire?
Though her danger sense remained placid, Gwen could sense in her bones that a controlling force was driving these forces to clash, though a missing piece of the puzzle eluded her.
Who was the beneficiary of it all? She wondered. That was the answer she couldn't find. As for now, keeping Mayuree in the Habitat wasn't a possibility as magical disruptions to the device would send Mayuree spiralling into the material world. The best she could do was have someone like Tei, Anita or Richard take care of her while she and the others chased off their attackers.
"Let's get out there then." Gwen had Eunae make Mayuree comfortable by propping the girl against Luyi, the healer's fawn. They then took the opportunity to buff themselves with Enhanced Ability, Flight, and conjuring seven baying electric-deerhounds eager for action.
"Eunnie, keep Mayuree close. Lulu, you're with me." She took a deep breath. "Let's make this quick."