"Eunie, Resistance, Bless and Fortify! Annie, Mage Armour, Haste and Expeditious Retreat—" Gwen barked at their defender, all pretence of politeness driven from the usual mildness of her mannerism. "Come on, chop-chop! Every second wasted is an opportunity lost."
Anita obliged, moving her lips even as Captain Bai's bloodshot eyes screamed for her to refuse.
"I am coming with you," Richard insisted.
"Me too," Lulan volunteered.
"Mao!" Tei Bai growled. "We're in the middle of a match!"
"A match we've won." Gwen turned to her Captain coldly. "Deliver the goods, connect Mandalay to the villages, and collect our CCs. Don't bother me if you're not going to help."
"We're a team, Gwen."
"And MIA is a PART of your team!" his Vice Captain snapped, then sighed. "Sorry Cap, the time for words will have come later."
Tei pursed his lips, looking to his other teammates for help.
"I'll come too." Jiro declared.
"Count me in." Rene likewise disappointed Tei.
Fudan's Captain facepalmed with both hands.
"Thanks, guys." Gwen inclined her head. "But I need to arrive fast, and when I leave, it needs to be VERY fast." And without additional burdens, Gwen added mentally.
"Do you know where to go?"
"Yeah." Gwen materialised a transponder unit. "Minty had it all planned it out, right from the start."
"You could be facing a whole dragon," Richard forewarned. "Gunther is going to miss his one-of-a-kind Ring."
"Worth it," his cousin replied. "And no. My only purpose is to take Mayuree back."
"Maybe Mayuree's Contingency Ring will activate?" Tei implored. "Save you a trip."
"I somehow doubt that, Cap," Gwen replied as she lifted into the air. "Tei, please take care of things."
"Lea," Richard implored his Spirit to partitioned a droplet of her elemental Essence into a vial. "Hold onto this. Lea will redirect us to you. Promise me, NO FIGHTING. We'll come as soon as we can."
"Right. Mia and I will be back in a jiffy." Gwen slipped the container into her potion pouch, then without adieu, Fudan's primadonna blasted off.
"Phew." Anita finally breathed, the tension draining from her face. "Mao, I thought we had to fight Ariel and Caliban!"
Tei turned away, then stepped on the truck's bonnet. "Let's not tarry then, move out!"
Xiao Mīao Liang was eight-years-old when she wandered the Wildlands. Her home, the Sect of Kunlun, had failed the test of time. Though the sect had survived since the Han Dynasty, the splendour of the cities proved too alluring for the younger generation of their warrior-hermits, and one by one, either tempted by a better life or slain by the monsters on the mountain, they dwindled into irrelevance. In the end, Xiao Mīao's venerable guardian, a distant relative, took the orphaned child down to Lhasa, through Bhutan, and finally to Manipur, where the Grandmaster of the Shadowmen then introduced Xiao Mīao to the House of Mü. By the end of their journey, her ageing guardian had grown worn and threadbare. With his dying breath, he tethered her to an heir of the Mon and Pyu, assured by the promise of provisions for his heir.
So it was that at the age of eleven, Xiao Mīao entered Mayuree's service as her companion.
"Xiao Mīao means cat!" her young mistress had been adamant on the name of her new pet. "You're Kitty from now on!"
The Mīao in Xiao Mīao stood for "sprout", representing her Clan's hope that one day, she would grow into a mighty tree. Though her impromptu name change had foreshadowed her future in the House of M, the newly minted Kitty Liang had been satisfied with a home and a friend.
At the age of fifteen, she tapped into a secondary element: Air, something the old Daoshi of Kunlun would have celebrated. She was given more resources to cultivate her skills, then assigned to higher tiers of learning.
At sixteen, she returned to Mayuree, who was now responsible for a division of the House of M's mercantile operations in Shanghai and served as her friend's companion and guard in Senior school. She had by then learned of the seniority system among the House of M's siblings, so had sworn to protect her friend against all harm, even her kin.
At eighteen, six-months into university at Fudan, Mayuree came to her with a vision.
"She's going to save my life one day!" Her companion had stammered, brimming from the crown to the toe with confidence. "Kitty, my saviour is going to be at your scholarship practical!"
And that was the first time Kitty met Gwen Song.
Even without Mayuree's divined wisdom, Kitty knew that the Void sorceress was going to be her bane. Faced with a giantess wearing an uncommonly comely countenance, Mayuree became instantly smitten. When her best friend's eyes positively glowed at the auction, it was enough to send a frosty shiv twisting into her heart.
After that, whether serendipity, fate or overt wilfulness on Mayuree's part, Gwen Song entered the orbit of their lives.
At first, the crass Frontierswoman was just an annoyance; then with increasing regularly, she began to show up at their apartment at B1, abandoning her hovel to invade the sanctum of Kitty and Mayuree's abode.
Gwen's constant presence had incensed Kitty to no end, far worse than when Marong, Mayuree's sister-obsessed inbred brother, decided to move into the master bedroom.
Day after day, Mayuree grew closer to the younger woman, eating with her, drinking with her, even questing together and finally, starting a business together; an equal partnership, something Kitty could never achieve.
Somewhere in between, Kitty witnessed Gwen Song eating a woman alive, starting from the head. Who was to say Gwen would not turn her appetite on Mayuree? Or that her aberrant Void powers wouldn't hurt Mayuree in some horrid, unforeseen way?
But Mayuree would not listen, and that had hurt Kitty profoundly. Unable to respond, she instead took breaks, going out to quest, to train up her skills so that when she returned, she could best Gwen Song and prove that it was she who would save Mayuree, and not the six-foot space invader.
Mayuree's half-frozen murmuring shook Kitty from her retrospection. They were at an altitude mundane Mages couldn't reach, where the air was cold enough to freeze the moisture from one's dermis. Kitty wasn't afraid of the cold, as per her elemental trait, while Mayuree was safely cocooned in her Rime Shell, a spell Kitty usually used for bounties.
After the IIUC selection, Maymyint had summoned her in Shanghai. There, three Shadowmen had cornered Kitty so that the Mind Mage could ferret through her brain. When she then tried to escape, to warn someone, anyone, their punishment had not been kind.
After that; her memory became a haze.
Training. Gwen Song. The competition. Yangon. Mandalay. Everything had been a blur.
Then they arrived at Indaw, where Aung San's Mages attacked.
As soon as Gwen collapsed in her grotesque throe of pleasure, Kitty knew what she had to do. An ardent desire blossomed in her head, and Maymyint's command that Mayuree must reach Nagaland's border outpost before the fourteenth day of the competition became paramount to her continued existence.
With her capture spell, she had disabled a feverish Mayuree and an unsuspecting Eunae, and now, she would travel to the basin north of the Arakan mountains, just past Manipur.
There, in the rolling green hills of Nagaland, she would find the mountain trail where for the last thirty years, members of Mayuree's family had been exiled to maintain the House of M's operations in the north.
And when she arrives?
Kitty couldn't guess even if she tried.
For now, she could only lament her friend's divined wisdom.
Gwen Song was Mayuree's boon.
While herself, Xiao Mīao, had grown into Mayuree's bane.
A flock of Wildland Doves took to sudden flight across a winding landscape which an imperial cartographer once labelled, "The Naga's Rise".
The unusual crests and valleys of Nagaland were a formation both natural and supernatural, for here was the homeland of the Naga, a race of mythic beings once worshipped as lesser Deva. Ancient Tibetan records stated that the Nagas descended from the many-headed dragon Xiangliu, itself defeated by one of the seven followers of the Yellow Emperor, a dragon called Zhulong, occupying the Aspect of Fire.
Atop the emerald valley lay the highest locality in southern Nagaland, Saramati Peak, the kissing-point of old colonial Burma and India, long before the cartographic border was made irrelevant by the Beast Tide.
Below the peak itself, in between the saddle of two rising hills, was the beginning of what the Generals of Yangon would call the illusive Tyrant's Lair, the home base of Aung San's rebellion, and the last bastion of the man who once dreamt of Burma's independence.
Within its vaulted underground palace lived the surviving children of Myăma's aborted independence. The first was Astaka, scion of Kauravya, the youngest Naga to follow Gautama Buddha. The other was Aung San Yuzana, inheriting the will of their father.
Astaka's name meant "he who has eight parts", or as Yuzana had translated, he who desires the Noble Eightfold Path. Within the mountain's depth, many manuscripts remained intact, unsullied by the twenty-five centuries that had passed since Gautama reached the state of nirvana, ascending into the Unbound Land, taking with him his many-headed disciples.
What Astaka recalled of his past lay only in fragments, memories baked into the jade shell of his egg, etched onto his Core when he hatched into the uncaring world; for the Naga are demi-dragons, creatures younger than the divine likes of the Shenlong, Yinglong and the Zhulong, whose eternal existence hailed from a higher plane. Comparatively, Nagas were terrestrial, having their beginnings in the material plane, incubated by a convergence of elemental forces given will and shape.
"Yuzana!" Astaka fought to hold his humanoid shape intact, shaken by the horror of what he had witnessed in Indaw. "Where are you?"
"My lord, I have arrived." A human woman entered the resplendent halls in which Astaka fumed. "What's the matter? News from the south?"
"She ATE Virana!" The Naga's metamorphic form revolted, no longer capable of holding back the raw emotions burning at his throat. In a moment, his body bloated, swelling and growing until no less than seven heads sprouted from his shoulders, expanding until his mass filled the cavern. "She's gone, Yuzana, GONE! Not even her soul remained! Virana will never be reborn, do you understand? They diminished her, wholly and completely!"
"What of my Mages?" the daughter of General Aung San pleaded. In the dim viridescent light of the jade plated hall, the woman appeared ageless, with a soft halo of radiance just above her temple. A human observer would have placed her in the forties, though her mien was well preserved, possessing the suppleness of one younger. "If even your Nagas are defeated…"
"They are in retreat," Astaka wailed. "I've commanded Nila and Ugra to flee. But Virana is no more!"
"How many of my kin still live?"
"Eight or nine, before Virana's life was cut short." As the Naga spoke, each head uttered a word, yet together, their fluency flowed without pause.
"Lord Astaka, can you speak to them on my behalf?" Yuzana bit her tongue, stifling her grief even as she spoke. It had been Astaka's idea to take the tithe by force, and she knew the Naga's regret was exclusive to his kin and not hers.
As six heads continued to wail, one lowered itself toward her face.
"Mistress?" came the voice of one of her officers. "Mistress! We're in pursuit! The target Lord Astaka had requested now moves toward Nagaland! W-we've lost half our men, including Kuhara, your brother. I… I am truly sorry."
"We're past the time for sorrow." Yuzana lowered her voice, stroking the Naga's cobra-like mien. With time, Astaka would grow one more head, completing his namesake and come into his destined power. As for now, Astaka remained a young adult, barely past his fourth century. When Yuzana's father first found the creature and actualised their alliance, he had thought the being unparalleled, but since his demise and during Yuzana's conflict with the lineage of the Pyu and Mon, she had come to realise the reality of the Naga's immature power. That was why, rather than completing her father's wishes, she had to cultivate Astaka's growth. For even if they were to decimate Yangon, entirely possible with Astaka, his siblings and her Mages, without the Pillar of Jade and the Naga firmly seated in Nagaland, they couldn't resist the imperialists. "Do you know why they had a change of heart?"
"No, mistress, the one bringing the tithing is Kitty Liang from the House of M. We won't be able to catch up."
Kitty Liang, Yuzana mulled over the name. She knew of the dual-element sorceress, though they had never fought.
"Are you followed?"
"Good, once she nears the outpost, return to your villages."
Astaka's head floated away.
Yuzana tempered her disquieted heart.
For months, even before their betrayal, Astaka's temper had been terrible, smothering the mountain with storms and landslides, making the lives of those farming on its tiled rice-terraces utterly impossible.
If the levy was now delivered, did that mean Me Nu yielded? Could it be that the delay was not the fault of the House of M, but outside forces at play, such as the foreign Mages?
At the thought of these invaders in her homeland, Yuzana felt a wave of anger. Again and again, the Mageocracy meddled in their affairs. An international university competition in Northern Burma? Who were they trying to fool?
As for their lost kin, Virana was only two centuries old. Yuzana had watched the Naga moult as she took on her human form for the first time. It had been a feat much celebrated by Astaka, who saw Ugra, Nila and Virana as future mates. When she had first heard Astaka boast of his planned incest, Yuzana had been appalled, but in the decade since, she had come to accept that the Essence of higher beings had little to do with organic physicalities. In mating and eating, Nagas like Astaka magnified their "being". That was when Yuzana had the brilliant epiphany of making Me Nu sacrifice her army of diluted brood to their "Tyrant". As the old saying goes, even the meat of a mosquito could be nourishment.
Then there was Kuhara. She had told her younger brother not to go, but he had romanticised himself a friend to Astaka. If Astaka was displeased and troubled, Kuhara had boasted, then it was his duty to make his compatriot well.
Yuzana blinked. "Yes, my Lord?"
"Your eyes are wet."
"Pay it no heed, my Lord. Nonetheless, I have good news. The Diviner is on her way."
"The line of Nahusha have capitulated?"
"I cannot be sure, my lord," Yuzana confessed. "But you shall soon have what was promised."
The good news seemed to distract Astaka from the new grief of losing a sibling, catching the lord of Nagaland between anticipation and melancholy.
"Come." Astaka's response was to slither for the exit. "Let us question this soon to arrive Mayuree. I desired to know what manner of cosmic horrors they had to commit to rob me of my sister's Essence, and what her 'mother' means by their gross delay!"
Maymyint's beacon flashed in the right direction, but the bloody thing was far from a GPS, meaning every so often, Gwen had to readjust her trajectory, losing time and distance.
The bitch had planned for everything, Gwen grumbled as she Dimension Doored another kilometre forward, hoping the periodic displacement added to her haste. When she left Richard and company, she had been confident that with her estimated velocity of just over a hundred kilometres an hour, she should be able to catch up to Kitty. It was like a real-world application of those mathematics questions her high school teacher used to give out:
A Kitty has absconded with Mayuree, travelling at 75 KM/H for forty minutes, and a very angry Gwen is in pursuit at 100 KM/H with the addition of Dimension Door at 1 KM for every 5 KMs covered. Calculate when Gwen could catch up to Kitty and light the traitor up like a Christmas Tree.
The arithmetic was unfortunately not in her favour, considering Nagaland can't be more than two hundred kilometres away and she kept getting lost, but she had to try. It was her idea to participate in the IIUC, and she had been more than happy for Mayuree and Kitty to join her. She had also been overconfident that there was no way Maymyint could meddle with the competition, and in a way, she was right. The match was almost over, and barring a Kyoto miracle, Fudan would win. If she hadn't been in a hurry to chomp down on Caliban's upgrades, she wouldn't have allowed this to happen.
Likewise, she couldn't have accounted for the fact that Kitty was a mole for Maymyint, and that she had planned to send Mayuree to the fucking Tyrant like a frozen turkey. Fucking Kitty! Gwen fumed. To take advantage of her single incident of absence! No wonder Kitty avoided her like the plague. She should have known Maymyint would have Mayuree under watch and key. For how long had Kitty awaited the opportunity?
The sheer level of convolution was astounding.
Was Maymyint expecting me to fight a fucking dragon? Gwen wondered.
Had news gotten out that she had bested a Thunder Wyvern, only for it to be Chinese whispered into a Thunder Dragon? Was that the ploy? Did "saving" Mayuree by blasting Kitty from the sky, scooping up her friend and flying the fuck back to Hpakan where a dozen high-tier Magisters awaited not occur to the genius Maymyint?
What of when Gwen returned to Shanghai? What was Maymyint's plan then? She willed a mote of Essence into her body, then pushed herself harder against the buffeting air.
So long as she caught up to Mayuree, then everything would be fine.
The drizzle that washed from Saramati Peak transformed into a deluge, painting the iron-rich escarpments white with rain, filling the canyons below with blood-tinged streams of ochre and rust.
"What.. what happened here?" Astaka's mood mirrored the weather, or perhaps it was vice-versa. Ever since a few months ago, he had felt invaded, violated, as though the land that belonged to him was slipping from his grasp. Losing the connection to his domain was an impossibility when the Jade Pillar was in his control, but the paranoia he felt was compounded by the fact that he knew the scent of the invader.
It was Yinglong; it had to be. Though Astaka had never met the elder being, his knowledge of the divine dragons was written into his blood, burned into his Core by the ancestral memory of the Naga's progenitor, whose ascension ended at the five-digited claws of a Fire Dragon.
Now, his paranoia manifested in reality.
At Saramati Peak, Yuzana had her kin set up a listening post which could observe all activity in the lower valley from Lay Shi to the densely forested province of Sagaing. From the mountain's vantage, Yuzana had witnessed the coming and going of convoys and invasions from the south.
But when Astaka had arrived with Yuzana and her mountain Mages, what greeted them was a massacre. Around the camouflaged outpost reposed the bodies of Yuzana's kin, some crushed, others half-eaten, one torn bodily limb from limb, almost as if a ritual took place. As for the stone shelter itself, the structure which Astaka had his Nagas built had been singularly destroyed, shattered as if by a mighty blow from a creature no less potent than Astaka himself.
"A thunder… dragon?" Yuzana allowed a clump of blasted soil to pass her fingers, noting that the silica had fused into glass. Concurrently, the unique presence of the dragon-kind, mockingly known as the "stink", was unmistakable.
"A scion of the Yinglong." Astaka tasted the air, each of his massive heads snapping at invisible particles, catching the scent of his enemy. "Yuzana, more and more, I feel Me Nu wants war."
Kitty descended, knowing that her destination neared, feeling the conclusion of her compelled quest in the thrum of magic confounding the chemistry of her brain.
Exhausted, she hovered over an upper saddle near the peak of Mount Saramati, observing the sheer drop on one side looking down toward low land Burma, while the opposite sloped back, descending into Nagaland.
She then landed with Mayuree in tow, surrounded by a group of human Mages, two with the dark indigenous skin of the mountain folk, and three with fairer complexions, all wearing the nationalist Burmese garb of a shawl and lungi. There was one other observer, half-naked, a demi-human serpent-folk, who watched from the side.
With a wave of her hand, she dispelled the cocoon capturing Mayuree, sending her friend tumbling onto the grass.
Then she knelt and was still.
Maymyint's Mind Magic faded.
Her senses returned.
She was free.
She opened her eyes like a new-born babe. Having regained her faculties, Kitty realised she recognised the woman who now approached, for she was the number one enemy of Yangon, second only to her father.
"I am Aung San Yuzana," the woman intoned. "I see you have brought the offering."
"I—" Kitty paused, her tongue suddenly caught in a snare. The offering? Slowly, she turned to regard Mayuree.
Her friend was unconscious, preserved by magic.
"Naga got your tongue, girl?" Yuzana prodded Kitty's kneeling body with her foot. "You're not a part of the tithing. You may go."
Kitty's eyes widened in horror.
"No, I- I can't..." she mumbled.
"Oh? Are you going to join us?"
"No! What?" Her mind struggled to catch up.
"What indeed." Yuzana's expression took on the bearing of a steel mask. When she spoke, her voice was full of command. "Tell me, child, is the House of M now in league with the heavenly dragons? Have Me Nu sold us out to the Chinese, or the British, or worse yet, to the dragons of the middle country?"
Kitty backed away, shuffling until she rested against Mayuree's rime-covered form. Her mana was low, but she had potions. Two periodic injections ought to get her home.
"What do you know of that?" Yuzana pointed to her right.
Kitty followed her fingers until she saw half-a-dozen bodies, mangled and desecrated, preserved by magic for burial.
"I don't know."
"You don't know very much, do you? Do you think I don't know who you are or who you serve? Go from here, and tell Maymyint we shall require another shipment if they wish to preserve the peace. Whatever she had planned, it will not succeed so long as our Lord rules Nagaland."
Instead of answering, Kitty reached down and wrapped an arm against Mayuree's hypothermic figure. If she could somehow get away, maybe there could be salvation yet.
"Are you daft, girl?" Yuzana jeered. "What are you—"
Without a word, having no plan beyond the immediacy of now, Kitty activated a spell she had held at the tip of her tongue, one that exercised little harm, but which offered her a chance to use her supernatural agility. From around her body and the space surrounding her Astral Form, a torrent of icy particles, enhanced by the additional of Elemental Air, burst where she stood, obfuscating all vision while simultaneously slowing her enemies.
With a careful tug, Kitty drew Mayuree into a princess-carry, then made an upward Jump into the air. If she could clear a certain height, she was sure that no Mage present could catch up to her, at least until Mayuree could be injected with a Restoration Potion and the two of them could work out a better strategy.
"DOWN! Dog of Me Nu!" The voice that burst from overhead possessed the mass of seven behemoths clamouring at once.
All Kitty could do was cradle Mayuree in her arms while she manifested an Ice Shield, retracting her arms and legs to protect her friend's head and neck.
The air in Kitty's lungs compressed at once, cracking her ribs as her barrier shattered, driving her into the rocky ground with a terrific velocity that exceeded her initial ascent. Her legs struck the floor first, her thighs cushioning her precious package as both knees cracked against the granite rock bed. With a grunt of supreme effort, she rolled to disperse her momentum, feeling her skin scrap as the cold stone violently kissed the left side of her face.
For a split-second, Kitty thought she had stood back up, for such was the rush of adrenaline coursing through her veins, but when she opened her surviving eye, she found herself sprawled out on the floor with Mayuree lying over her.
Before the agony struck, she ran a mote of Ice through her body, dulling all sensation. Move! She commanded her rebellious limbs. Move! Damn you! Mia!
"Grrrghk… Miaaaa…" was the sound that issued from her lips, even dulled, the pain was everywhere.
Something loomed overhead, eclipsing the sun.
Seven heads, each the size of automobiles, tasted her broken body.
Where did the Naga come from? How had she missed such a being?
Mayuree! She returned her mind to the only thing that mattered, only to see Aung San Yuzana's men pulling the Diviner from her.
"I still have questions for this one," a voice resounded from each of the cobra heads, indicating Mayuree. "But before we begin, I could use a light snack."
Kitty's one remaining eye stared toward the heavens.
Her tormentor laughed.
But the Naga's semi-conscious victim was no longer trembling at its impressive maws. Neither the Tyrant's flickering forked-tongues nor the fangs that would soon sink into her torso bothered her, for Kitty's cyclopean vision caught something just behind the Naga, first, a spell flare, then a familiar Kirin silhouette.
Suddenly, the Tyrant reared its head as to snap at something in the air.
A bolt of cobalt zinged past the space between the Naga's open mouth, curving around the massive girth of its serpentine body, then blossomed into a semi-sphere of brilliant viridescent energy enveloping the entirety of the outpost, expanding until it reached a dozen meters in diameter. A portion of it caught the Tyrant, sizzling the creature's skin with its plasmic discharge. The rest of the blast enveloped Aung San Yuzana and her Mages, taking the unsuspecting casters off their feet, leaving an untouched Mayuree to tumble violently against the blasted stones of the plateau.
With a twist of its body, the Tyrant arched with unearthly haste and swallowed Aung San's daughter. A split-second later, the second stage of Elemental Sphere erupted, ringing out in a massive nova twenty-meters wide, slicing across the outpost, destroying all that remained, disintegrating the bodies of the fallen, fusing sand to stone and wiping four of Yuzana's Mages from the face of Nagaland.
Almost simultaneously, a blast of lightning landed beside Mayuree, revealing a giantess in a bible-black combat-suit, cascading lightning and venting electricity as she scooped up the Diviner's rigid body and hoisted her across one shoulder.
"Gwen…" Kitty choked, her meek lungs incapable of generating a louder sound. The spell had just caressed Kitty's body. Hope soared. If it was Gwen, maybe she could save them both.
"Hello…" Her Vice Captain took a half-second to catch her breath before she dematerialised in the next, leaving only her last words for Kitty. "… and good luck with your Contingency Ring."