"I fear there's no trace of her,” Ruxin explained with great patience.
At her behest, Ruxin returned the trio back to the spot where he and the Tyrant had concluded their titanic struggle. Where previously a primal landscape thick with Banyan, moss and tendrils of tropical creepers existed, now she bore witness to a barren apocalypse worthy of Vietnam.
When Gwen explained the House of M's involvement with the Tyrant and her stake in the matter, Ruxin informed her that the Tyrant's rivalry with Me Nu was likely a bastard-on-bastard form of tribal cannibalism. The first few generations of the Mon and Pyu would have done well, he explained, but the life-spans of consecutive scions would have diluted until, twenty-centuries later, they became vermin.
“But your ties to the House of M interest me.” Ruxin cocked his flawless mien. “Very soon, I shall have a vast and dire need for mineral resources. Nephrite and jadeite are useless to me. I need precious gems and crystals imbued with Water, Air or Positive elements. Are you familiar in the ways of human barter?”
“I am." Gwen found the cooperative dragon an amicable listener. “Though first, I have accounts to be balanced with their eldest.”
“Spoken like one of us,” Golos added on the sly, struggling to catch up with the duo’s conversation as their topic teleported from conspiracy to politics to blood-grudges.
“Surely nothing so savage.” Ruxin furrowed his brows. "Is there something to gain?"
Gwen winced. There was indeed much to gain: her Centurion profits being the least of it. Fooling oneself was much harder than prettying up her intentions, but she nonetheless persisted. “We can't have suffered for nothing, and Kitty can't have died for nought.”
“Shaa!” sensing her intentions, her Familiar enquired if she was hungry.
Her response was to stroke Caliban’s carapace in apprehensive silence. Anyone would be hungry after an expenditure of vitality like that, but her appetite wasn't for physical nourishment.
The dragon observed his niece with an indecipherable expression before looking to the north.
Ding! A Message bloomed beside Gwen’s ear, bringing welcome tiding of Mayuree, Richard and her friends.
"Your humans?" Golos licked his chops. "I could eat."
The Wyvern rose from the floor.
"Golos, please don't," Gwen pleaded. For a second, she had forgotten that Golos’ primary diet was sentient Merfolk. The Wyvern wasn't a buddy to be chummed with; he was a bonafide man-eater.
“Be nice.” Ruxin raised a stern finger in warning. “No goading them. No eating them.”
"Thanks." Gwen nodded at her "Uncle".
"Niece," Ruxin addressed her with an overfamiliarity that drew her eyes. "Let me gift you with a little perspective. In the employ of your talents, how many creatures have perished? How many insects, how many flowers and fungi, had you consumed through your Void Beast? Where you had fought, the land is dead, empty, drained of all life. BLIGHTED. Did your heart shudder then? If not, why is it so indecisive now? Those creatures, in time, would have been a part of my being, each alive with vigour and the desire for multiplication and division. They were miniscule, yes, but a part of something infinitely greater than the singularities you mourn. So, my niece, if you must weep, mourn for million dead whose ascension you had quashed to save one."
Gwen paled. Having one's ambiguous hypocrisy explained in no uncertain terms was too staggering a blow.
"If you must act, exalt in your actions," Ruxin finished by poking her forehead before brushing back a strand of her wild, blood-matted hair. "That's our creed."
"But the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance," Gwen retorted with a line she had stolen from her old world, the very same she had sprouted to Yuki and Ichiro. "Is that wrong?"
"Hahahaha..." A burst of burlesque laughter rebuked her aphorism. Ruxin shook his head, then gave her cheek a condescending pat. "Do you know why no one hunts true dragons?"
"That's right. We're a vengeful few." Ruxin's euphemism struck within her a dreadful cord. "If you truly believe in that human wisdom, then your Kitty has died a dog's death."
“Gwen!” came a chorus of voices.
Before her team could begin their draconic-encounter, Gwen flew out to embrace her teammates, then kissed Ariel for a job well done, receiving a tongue bath in return.
Mayuree stood expectantly, awaiting the good news.
What she received was Gwen bowing from the waist.
“I couldn’t save Kitty!” came her friend's voice, loud and clear, ringing across the clearing. “I left her to die on the plateau. I failed you. I failed the team.”
Mayuree’s lips parted, then closed, then embraced her saviour with a fierceness betraying the Diviner's tiny body, digging her face into Gwen's shoulders to stifle her broken-hearted groans. Ariel joined the huddle, nuzzling its master and her friend over and over.
"It's my fault," the girl moaned. "All my fault."
“Wocao! Kitty’s dead?!” Jiro blustered. "Was she a traitor then? Why?”
"Jiro!" Richard scolded the Fire Mage with his eyes.
"Sorry." Jiro bit his tongue.
"Richard." Lea appeared beside Richard. "Those two down there, they're dragons."
“Right. We'll talk later, and in private.” Richard coughed, wary of the demi-divine presence in white, accompanied by a half-naked barbarian brute. “Lea's right. Your friends look important... and impatient.”
Setting aside her tumultuous emotions, Gwen guided her troop below, where with great mindfulness, she placed herself between her draconic and human companions.
“Behold, Lord Ruxin, Thunder Dragon, first prince of Huangshan, now lord of this land,” she explained. “That’s Golos, I fought him before, for those of you who know of it. He’s the Thunder Wyvern who helped us with Seoul.”
“Your Eminence." Unlike the others, Richard had been schooled by Prince’s in addressing sentient, higher-tier demi-human beings. “Richard Huang, at your service. I am Gwen’s cousin from Sydney. This is Lulan Li of Huashan, and this is Jiro Peng of Shanghai. We are her Fudan University teammates.”
The others quickly fell into line, realising they were hinds gazing upon a momentarily satiated lion.
“Sir!” Lulan bowed mechanically.
“Lord!” Mayuree knelt in the mud, conditioned by Me Nu's teachings.
“Dragon Lord!” Jiro saluted, sweating from every pore.
“EE EE!” Ariel crouched, bowing to the superior presence.
"Shaa!" Caliban nuzzled the new arrivals.
“Be at ease.” Ruxin raised a hand. “I am not so mighty as you think. Do not mind the titles. Shamefully, it is I who is in my niece's debt.”
Richard took the news stoically, Lulan appeared pleased. Mayuree, meanwhile, had been conditioned to grovel on the forest floor, while Jiro was about to lose his shit.
“Gwen, you’re kin to a dragon?!”
“It’s a complicated situation, Jay.” Gwen motioned for the young man to calm himself. “And please, not a word.”
“Oh… of course! Ma’am!” The young man made the sign for silence.
After Jiro's outburst, the conversation ceased.
"What will you do now?" Gwen enquired of Ruxin, aware of the growing awkwardness. Simply put, the dragons had no interest in her human companions. Gwen wondered if an analogy would involve expecting her friends to baby-talk her cats.
“I believe this is where we part.” Ruxin waved at Gwen's companions before commanding Golos to stop flaring his nostrils at the quivering Mayuree. “I shall return to the palace in Nagaland to oversee the transition."
“Come with us.” Golos murmured at Gwen. "We'll populate the mountain, you and I—"
Ruxin smacked his brother over the horns.
"I have requested a meeting with your Chief Proctor," the Thunder Dragon reminded her. "Some good news for this competition of yours should disperse your looming cloud, I would hope."
Gwen turned her eyes up toward the dragon's ivory face.
“Ah-ah, not a frown further.” Ruxin poked her where her brows knitted, finding great amusement in the act. “Likewise, I shall prepare reparations for your service. Look forward to it!”
A beam of white lightning caught the dragon’s divine figure. To Gwen's eyes, it appeared as though Ruxin had been beamed up by the USS Nagaland.
The team turned to Golos expectantly.
Grumbling, Golos broke into a sprint, leapt, then transformed into a resplendent Thunder Wyvern, making for the peak in the distance, leaving a trail of vibrant sparks.
With the dragons gone, the tension burst like an overflowing meniscus.
"Phew, shall we head back?" Richard unwound.
"Cao, my heart almost exploded." Jiro exhaled.
Gwen helped Mayuree from the floor.
"Mia, there's more," Gwen invited Mayuree to stand beside her. "Here is where I fought the Tyrant. My Void Elementals... may have consumed Kitty's body."
Two days after Kachin's draconic seachange, the handover from Mandalay to Hpakan was complete. The roads were cleared from the mines all the way down to the old capital, and its people returned to the labour of extracting precious stones from the earth.
Thanks to the newly arrived machinery, supplies and medicines, industry returned to the region, regaining the vigour it had enjoyed before the monsoonal deluge.
At their quest's conclusion, a grand speech was given by the proctors, curiously missing their leader and his assistant.
When the others received news of Kitty’s passing, the celebratory mood grew tragic. The team's grief, however, was fleeting. That Mages died executing their duties was a tale as old as time. Everybody, explained Tei, knew of loved ones who died to monsters. Mages, whether in fable or in reality, died not from old age or disease, they died fighting.
"Celebrate her life," Tei offered his condolences after performing a brief service, plying the trade of his family business. "Do not dwell, if you are right, her final act was to save Mayuree, let us remember that instead."
"May Kitty be reborn to a better life," Yuki and the Kyoto team proffered sympathy and praise in equal measure. "You made the right choice. Mayuree is safe, our quest is completed, and the Tyrant is defeated. Isn't that enough, Gwen-san?"
Was it enough? Gwen's response was one of ambivalence. Since their return, she had spoken to Mayuree many times, though each and every time, her friend plied her with platitudes and kind words of forgiveness, serving only to exacerbate her guilt.
On the day of their southward return to Mandalay, a servant brought a Message from Marong.
“Me Nu is dead,” Marong's voice came through. “Maymyint has murdered our 'mother' and usurped the House of M. I should have sensed her ploy when Mia was suddenly offered to the Tyrant. She's after our Centurion program. That's how this whole fiasco began."
Was that it? Gwen again found herself astounded by the greed of her own kind. Since this began, she had wondered what Minty stood to gain, why the woman wanted to inherit Me Nu's shitshow. Now she knew.
“Mayuree and I are at the end of our line,” Marong explained, his voice heavy with desperation. “Gwen, I am afraid Mayuree is going to remain in your care for the foreseeable future. If an opportunity arises, I am going to end Maymyint's tyranny over us, once and for all.”
Mayuree’s eyes widened. "Marong, no!"
“Don’t fret.” Gwen patted her on the shoulder. “Let me speak to Walken when we get to Yangon. If Marong wants to do this…”
The room grew suddenly cold.
“… then we do it together.”
Magister Lutz von Schlabrendorff wrinkled his nose.
Though the NoMs had gone and scrubbed the underground palace thoroughly, there was no doubt in his mind that a great deal of violence had soaked the stones as of late.
“Sir, shall we proceed?” Magister Hass straightened her dress uniform.
They were, after all, meeting with a being who had existed a hundred years before the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. A pure-blooded Thunder Dragon, first Scion to the Yinglong, and "Uncle" to Fudan’s Void sorceress.
The last title made the Magister splutter with indignity, exhaling a lungful of frustrated air.
After reviewing Ruxin's demands and communicating with his superiors from the Mageocracy, it had been decided that Lutz von Schlabrendorff would be their negotiator for the control of lower Burma. His orders from above were to secure Mandalay and Yangon, with the added proviso that a Tower was built in Yangon as soon as possible.
Which meant that, after negotiations with Ruxin, he would continue south with his team of newly minted diplomats to meet with Me Nu about the possibility of re-establishing a Mageocracy-controlled faction, a prospect infinitely complicated by unseen foreign interests in Yangon.
“Right, let’s go.”
The proctors-turned-diplomats entered the sanctum, following a hundred-meter long seam of jade polished to perfection, then stepped into an underground hall bright with mother-of-pearl.
“The remodelling is going to take some time,” a voice called out from the throne, a giant circular divan carved from a single piece of jadeite. “I am an open-air dragon if I do say so myself.”
“Your eminence, Lord Ruxin,” von Schlabrendorff reverently intoned, then bowed. “The Mageocracy stands in awe of your victory over the Tyrant.”
A man in white stepped from the raised platform. A single glance was enough to discern that indeed, the regal specimen was the scion of a mythic being.
“You must be Lutz von Schlabrendorff, Gwen told me about you,” Ruxin nodded. “And you must be Evelyn Hass. Welcome to my new domain. Allow me to apologise for the lack of servants, we are in the process of reorganising.”
From behind the divan, emerged two men, naked from the waist up and colourfully tattooed, with complexions the colour of caramel. They were followed by a third, an elderly man with a formidable bearing.
“Bring our guests some tea and food, whatever’s in the storeroom,” Ruxin commanded the younger two. The young men bowed, then they were suddenly gone, leaving nary a trace of mana.
The Shadowmen of Manipur! Von Schlabrendorff’s brows twitched. Which meant the older man was the Vairagi. Are these rustic hermits now working with Ruxin? What did the Meitei people hope to achieve by allying with a dragon?
“Well then.” Ruxin looked around. “Tika, bring us a table and some chairs.”
Lutz von Schlabrendorff blinked. There was a woman in the room as well, but Ruxin's presence was such that he had scarcely noticed her. She looked to be a local, a serpent folk, with half-moon eyes and thick, sensual lips, possessing an androgynous allure. From her petite frame, she was likely a Meitei.
The woman called “Tika” moved between the two parties, then muttered an incantation in dragon-tongue under her breath. At once, the jadeite floor shifted.
Four chairs; von Schlabrendorff counted with dismay. One for Ruxin, one for himself, one for the Meitei of Manipur, and one other.
"Am I the last to arrive?" a voice boomed across the hall.
Von Schlabrendorff turned, confirming his hypothesis.
"Magister, I am sure you're acquainted with Magister Wei Lin from the People's Liberation Army."
"I came as fast as I could." The Magister bowed deeply, then grinned at his Mageocracy counterpart. "Surely the Mageocracy isn't thinking of drafting new borders without our consent? This isn't 1973 all over again, is it?"
Von Schlabrendorff laughed.
Wei Lin laughed.
Ruxin and the Vairagi both joined in the merriment.
“Gentlemen, take a seat." Ruxin made himself comfortable as the servants arrived with rice paper, dried meat and well-water. "Let us partake in this communion of mortal sustenance, then I shall tell you of how things came to be, and where hence they shall go.”
Walken had prepared an hour-long scolding for his wayward student, but then Gwen arrived a day earlier than anticipated, with Marong and Mayuree in tow, enquiring as to the most practical means of murdering a certain Maymyint.
His first reaction was to wonder if his protégé had been replaced by a doppelgänger.
His second was to recall that Maymyint was an Enchanter.
His third was to deliver the summary report from the Examination Committee verbatim.
"So Kitty was glamoured..." Gwen's voice grew as frigid as the Void. "And I left her to die. Very well. I see."
"And she tried to save me in the end." Mayuree fought back choking sobs.
“… and you are certain Me Nu died to Maymyint?” Walken demanded of Marong, who nodded.
“I witnessed the deed, as well as her contacting the Master of Nagaland."
"And all of you are prepared?" Walken felt ten years younger. "Mentally and spiritually?"
"We are." Gwen spat between pearly teeth. Between Ruxin, Golos, Mayuree, Marong and Walken's report, there was now no doubt as to the source of all their woes.
“Then Maymyint must not be 'murdered',” Walken began with great sagacity. "She..."
"Shaaa!" Caliban complained.
“...I mean,” Walken continued. “That she must disappear. She must flee into the wilderness to live as a Wildland Rogue for the rest of her days.”
The three youngsters listened to Walken as he laid out the pros and cons of Maymyint’s decision to "relent" her place as the head of the House of M, escaping the consequences of her crime.
“... and there we have it. For vengeance, for justice, for profit and for the triumph of good, the deed should be done. Not to mention an Enchanter is our missing piece of the puzzle.”
He watched as Gwen's face flushed a dark crimson.
“Please.” Marong sank down on both knees. “We need this. Only you can make Maymyint retire beyond all trace of Divination.”
Gwen's breathing grew audibly laboured.
The girl gets it, Walken rejoiced. She understands.
"Think what Gunther would do," Walken distastefully advised. "Or Alesia."
He had already explained her circumstance very well.
In the psychomachia of virtue and vice, she had cause and justification.
In the ways of a lawless Frontier, she possessed both might and means.
In the secret court of her heart, her croaking Caliban roared for revenge.
"When?" the girl muttered.
"Why now, of course," Walken offered his most sympathetic presentation. "Strike while the iron's hot."
In Karaweik Palace, the late Me Nu’s pleasure barge had taken on a new mistress.
The news had yet to spread, for Maymyint dared not cement her place without first dealing with the loss of Mayuree, Kitty, and possibly Gwen Song and the subsequent fallout with the IIUC Committee.
There would be reprimands, which Maymyint was willing to accept. She had even readied scapegoats, Rogue Mages operating from Indaw, saboteurs she had long since set up to infiltrate Aung San’s mountain forces, ready to take the blame.
After that, came the real business, the cornerstone of her plan.
Her master from the shadows had it all mapped out.
As a real dragon and as a being of thunder and air, he had no need for earthly items like the Pillar of Jade to subsume the land. Therefore, the Pillar would fall to her, and she would grace the Mageocracy with an offer they could not refuse.
A Tower in Yangon.
She would be a hero, single-handedly responsible for returning a piece of fertile and populated land into the welcoming arms of humanity.
Maymyint chuckled to herself, eager for the good news from the north, delighting in the sound of her reverberating laughter. According to her Shadowmen, her master had been successful in retrieving the Pillar of Jade. All that's left was to seize her prize.
She roused with a start, glancing at her side to ensure that her guards were present. Soundlessly, two elite Shadowmen melded into the half-lit gloom of the opulent palace.
The massive golden doors yawned open. Slowly and with great deliberation, Marong entered.
“Marong, what a surprise.” Maymyint felt her fingers tingle. She had been awaiting the confrontation ever since Mayuree arrived with her guard in Indaw. “What’s the matter, Brother?”
Marong held the door for so long that, for a brief moment, Maymyint wondered if he had a whole platoon of Mages ready to storm the throne room.
Just as she was about to scold his tardiness, a second figure came through the door.
The voice that spoke was sicky sweet, not at all like Maymyint’s own. She had always hated that voice, the innocence, the hope, the melodrama of it irked her to no end.
“M-Mayuree!” Maymyint bolted upright in her throne, her spine suddenly ramrod-straight. “H-How?”
“The Tyrant is no more,” Marong intercepted his sister’s speech. Together, the two began their advance. “Gwen fulfilled the prophecy.”
“I-impossible!” Maymyint’s eyes searched the room for her guards. “It possesses the Jade Pillar! Not even...not even…“
She swallowed. There was no way Gwen Song defeated the Tyrant; it had to be a bluff. She had seen Marong and Mayuree grow into adults. She knew them better than anyone. The siblings must be at the end of their wits, that was why they had forced this audience upon her, to threaten her, to gain their freedom.
And yet... if Gwen Song could defeat the Tyrant, then was it with help? Perhaps Ayxin? Her master’s sister, or even the Ash Bringer? The man had appeared formidable, but there was no way a mortal could beat down a dragon with an infinite supply of vitality and mana.
But then again, what did any prophesy matter? Her Master would soon return, and it was Maymyint who had the dragon's backing. If so, what need she fear?
“You lie.” Maymyint resumed a semblance of calm. “You’ve escaped, somehow, and now you’re trying to undermine my authority. Very well, I'll play your game. Your survival was an impressive feat. Marong, Mayuree, what do you want?”
“Vengeance for Kitty,” Mayuree snarled. “You glamoured her! Sent her to her death! There wasn’t even a body left!”
But the fool lived to die for you. Maymyint silently lambasted her dimwitted sister.
“An accident.” She remained calm, masking her disdain. “There are costs when progress has to be made. The Tyrant had to be lured from its lair, you understand. The House of M will only grow from here. With myself in command and no Tyrant and no Me Nu, do you have any idea how much we stand to make? How extensive our restaurants, auctions, consortiums—"
Marong disappeared in a puff of smoke.
"MARONG! YOU DARE? Guards!” Maymyint barked without hesitation. Marong was a fantastic Mage when it came to combat, but he had made the stupid decision to bring his sister. “Dominate!”
A blast of Radiance filled the room.
Glamoured, Mayuree suddenly ran forward, opening her arms so that she became a human shield to protect Maymyint.
A moment later, Marong reappeared, a safe distance away with both hands raised.
“Changed your mind?” Maymyint chuckled. "Guards, kill him."
Marong’s expression, to her surprise, was one of ridicule.
Where are the Shadowmen? Maymyint's brows knitted, suddenly realising a fatal error. Are they refusing to attack a colleague?
"Guards!" she called out at once. "OBEY YOUR CONTRACT!"
"Fool! I still have Mayuree," Maymyint hissed. "You—"
Mayuree turned to regard her sister with tear-stained eyes, seemingly free of her Mind Magic.
Maymyint blinked as her body grew weightless.
Below, a pair of scything blades had sprouted from her chest, one through her breast, the other through her abdomen. She opened her mouth to protest her surprise, though nought but frothy blood gurgled from her lungs.
With great effort, her eyeballs swivelled upwards.
Two enthusiastic tentacles met her halfway.
Mayuree turned away.
Outside the opulent throne room, a sorceress was sick all over the floor, simultaneously assailed by pleasure and revulsion.
On the 23rd of September, 2004, Maymyint, eldest of the House of M, fled into the Wildlands, never again gracing the material world.