"Very well." Magister Lutz von Schlabrendorff signed off on the tablet in front of him. "287 CCs for Jiantong."
"Poor sods." A second Magister winced. "In-fighting's the worst."
"It's an old story," another voice joined in around the table. "Comes with the territory if you're a tribal caster. Strong soloists, horrible teamwork."
"It's not as though we're immune," another snorted. "Swap out Sects for families, and what do you get? Europe's homogeny is incidental, I'd say."
"Quiet!" Von Schlabrendorff raised another slate. "Are we agreed on Seoul?"
"Since the Orientals have applied for 'withdrawal'." The third shrugged. "That's that."
"They've submitted a request for the memory crystals," Magister Hass reminded her supervisor. "Or at least for the lumen-crystals NOT to be widely circulated."
"If they're willing to do it, they're willing to show it." Von Schlabrendorff frowned unpleasantly. "No exceptions."
"Seoul U, 0 CCs. Withdrawn. Remind Magister Kim that both our time and materials need to be repaid." The chief proctor signed off on the next slate. "Tell Brussels to keep an eye on them. All communique must be available on the public record."
"Next, Kyoto. Any questions?"
The table collectively shifted their gaze to the final stack of documents and data-slates.
Where Kyoto's collated data generated a report the thickness of von Schlabrendorff's thumb, the volume beside it could be used to stop a Magic Missile.
"Very well, then, including penalties for illicit use of logged Magic Items, 2640 CCs to Kyoto."
"Next, Fudan—" Magister Hass retrieved the upper-most tablet.
The room broke out into a great clamour.
"Are you out of your mind, Lutz?" A Magister who'd awaited the whole tedious meeting was at the limit of his patience. "You may have convinced Brussels, but how are you hoping to convince anyone else? Japan will be in an uproar! Seoul will challenge! The Chinese will have their day and never let us live it down!"
"SILENCE!" Von Schlabrendorff banged the table. "We will examine an itemised list, and I shall explain. If you remain dissatisfied, you may appeal to Meister von Braun."
The protest died a slow death even as tensions remained high.
"First, we shall begin with Fudan's accomplishments," von Schlabrendorff began. "Hass?"
"Fudan University was the only team to stop and aid the local population, detouring to engaging in search and rescue operations in Takaung. One survivor was recovered and revive—"
The table exploded.
"SHUT UP!" von Schlabrendorff barked. "Another interruption and we are done!"
The others returned to their seats.
Magister Hass continued. "One survivor was recovered and revived. The village then received food and shelter, enough for aid to arrive from the larger townships closer to Mandalay. For Samaritanism in the spirit of the quest, 100 CCs."
"Fudan was the last team to arrive, landing at La War. Concurrently, Seoul U was involved in the construction of a dam which they used for flood control. As they have withdrawn, we will no longer contest this matter. During this incident, Gwen Song engaged and wounded Lee Si-Won, resulting in the collapse of the dam, and the partial destruction of La War. Subsequent evacuations and management of the village's damage yielded a total of 340 CCs for this event."
"What follows are events that lead to forfeit by Jiantong and Seoul U. You shall find these in sections 1.3.2 and 2.4.2. A comprehensive spell-list can be found in your appendix A. Items in appendix C. No CCs were awarded nor deducted for these events as they do not pertain to the given goals of the quest."
"Following their competitors' exit, Fudan repaired damaged roadwork to the jade mines. At the mine itself, Fudan implemented sanitation measures as well as introduced work safety for the local villagers. Wages and a reward system was established to punish laziness and catalyse responsible behaviour. Villagers from Kamaing were brought in through diplomacy. A local tribe of Wildland macaques was bribed to form a temporary truce with the human inhabitants, ensuring the safety of both La War's and Kamaing's citizens. Most importantly, discrepancy within the manager's statements and a new accounting system were implemented. In exchange for evading punishment, resources estimated at 40,000 HDMs are pending recovery. The itemised list is on appendix, section F. In total, 2,130 CCs were awarded."
"From Mandalay, Fudan's second team organised resource distribution through a point-duelling system alongside Kyoto U. For minimising conflict and enabling cooperation, 340 CCs."
"During the Indaw engagement, Fudan exterminated one hostile tier 8 Naga and five Rogue Mages, while minimising collateral damage to the township. With the total loss of two trucks and forty-eight NoMs taken into account. 250 CCs."
"Finally, Fudan's convoy arrived intact in Hpakan with 90% of all goods delivered without further incident. Taking into account critical goods and no other loss of life. 150 CCs."
"This brings us to 3310 CCs," Hass finished. "Now for the deductions."
"The Chief Proctor has previously detected the illicit use of Mind Magic on the Diviner, Mayuree. A warning had been given to Fudan's advisor, Magister Walken, who elected the party at fault to be Miss Maymyint, our point of contact for Yangon's central administration. During the competition, an incident occurred. Miss Kitty Liang fell under the control of a mid-tier Embedded Agenda Enchantment, a highly illicit example of Mind Magic strictly controlled under Article 17, though as Burma remains an extra-territorial Frontier, the legalities remain complex."
"During this incident, our surveillance systems suffered a setback. However, we have it on the authority of the proctors present that Fudan had initiated the following actions."
"Gwen Song. Illicit use of unregistered, restricted Magic Item - Superior Potion of Invisibility."
"Gwen Song. The lethal use of Class II Restricted-Magic 'Cloud Kill' on another Mage. Though the victim, presumed to be Aung San Yuzana, is a Rogue Mage, thereby not under the protection of the Tower's laws."
A grudging murmur spread through the table.
"Gwen Song. Suspicion of Conspiracy. Records show that the individual 'Golos' who intervened during the incident in regards to Seoul U is known to her. If proven, match interference of this kind may be escalated to disqualification."
"That's right!" a Magister called out. "Conflict of interest!"
The chief proctor stared him down.
"Kitty Liang - Mind Magic and match interference. Although the incident did not directly tamper with the results, therefore, no CCs will be deducted. As a side note, Contestant Gwen Song engaged Kitty Liang in a friendly-fire incident resulting in her teammate's death. Details are in section IV-I."
Hass waited for the decision to sink in before delivering her final line."After review, Gwen Song's actions cannot be construed as seeking an advantage, nor having resulted in one. As for the involvement of third-party Magical Creatures, Magister von Schlabrendorff will clarify."
Hass turned on her heels, then stood primly behind Lutz, her superior.
"That's all very well and good, but aren't you missing something?" a Magister raised a bundle of documents in frustration. "I want to know why Fudan is receiving a SEEDED position for the IIUC!"
"Why is there no mention of the Tyrant in your report?"
"What about Ruxin? What about the Thunder Dragon?"
"I heard she fought a Mythic! To a stand still!"
"What of her ties to Sobel? She used a similar spell—"
"What's going to happen to the other Asian teams?"
"You're destroying our neutrality! Blatant favouritism from Brussels!"
"You Grey Faction scoundrels!"
"Are your militant meatheads any better?"
Von Schlabrendorff sipped his coffee while the other proctors tired themselves out. Recent events had indeed been a victory for the Grey Faction, though his fellow proctors likely had no idea of the details.
"I understand your frustration." Von Schlabrendorff's voice overpowered the outburst. "But let me enlighten you on events as they now unfold. A deal has been made with Ruxin, the new Lord of Nagaland, Manipur and Kachin, a lease of sorts for the foreseeable future. If you don't like it, make a petition and tell your backers to pay a visit to the Jade Palace in Nagaland. My authority in this comes from the top - London, Berlin and Beijing are in agreement."
The table fell into sullen silence.
"A few days ago, I visited Lord Ruxin as the representative of the Mageocracy," von Schlabrendorff explained with great patience. These men had brought an axe to grind, and he had waited for their choler to dull before delivering a bite of his own. "Though an official announcement has yet to be made, I will inform you of where we stand. From October, the Mageocracy will resume governorship of Yangon as a Frontier Protectorate, while the Chinese will establish a military presence to the north, in Mandalay. In exchange for resource autonomies, as well as Gwen Song's guaranteed passage through to the IIUC's international round, Yangon will receive the Pillar of Jade."
A collective shuffling of chairs filled the room.
A Tower in Yangon!
A Human Frontier returned to the fold!
"Lord Ruxin's initial demand." Von Schlabrendorff cleared his throat. "Was to gift Fudan 100,000 CCs in the IIUC to 'get it over and done with'."
A new silence fell over the room.
"I choose instead to preserve our dignity," von Schlabrendorff vocalised sardonically. "As such, all of you will join me in agreeing that Fudan has achieved Seeded status, taking one of Asia's two slots, with a total score of 3310 CCs, a new record for the Asian Qualifiers. Are there any questions?"
"I've got one."
"Go on, Magister Corey."
"Why Gwen Song?"
"I am afraid that isn't for me to say, James."
"Fine, then I have a question." A dozen heads turned to regard the elderly scholar. From her pregnant vowels and elongated 'e', it was evident that the hawkish Magister hailed from the American west coast. "Is this because Gwen Song raised the dead?"
A new hush filled the chamber.
"No," said von Schlabrendorff. "That is a separate matter—"
"I find that hard to believe," the woman interrupted Von Schlabrendorff. "Whatever you might say, the demi-human she aided had been asphyxiated. Your own observations crystals indicate her breathing had ceased."
"The woman was a demi-human being," Von Schlabrendorff added. "Their physiologies are different."
"Nonetheless," Magister Williams persisted. "That's Necro—"
"Magister Milford Williams!" von Schlabrendorff snapped. "There was neither Positive Energy nor Negative Energy present during the incident! For all we know, it was luck! Sheer luck!"
"And the Grey Faction, including her disgraced advisor, has no interest in this matter?" Williams scoffed. "Need I remind you that her wardens in Sydney, Magus Shultz and De Botton belong to our Middle Faction."
"What are you suggesting?" Von Schlabrendorff growled.
"What I am saying..." Willams snarled. "Is that the Grey Faction is up to its old tricks, trying to hog a good thing!"
Then, as if gasoline to a Fireball, the room ignited.
With great care, Ruì placed a blanket over Gwen's hunched, groaning body, then tip-toed from the spacious open-office with the others.
Suddenly appearing at the office after her return from Yangon, Ruì's lady boss had thrown herself into her appointed position as advisor for the House of M, shackling her NoM assistants to the small, single floor office while she tirelessly pored over the flood of paperwork coming in from Yangon, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Singapore and more.
"How long has she being awake?" Terence, dark eye-bags under his eyes, breathed a sigh of relief. "Any longer and I would have died."
"How do I look." Effi poked at her bloated face.
"You look like a Pandaren." Ruì wanted to laugh, but she was afraid of waking her boss. "I think she's been up for four days."
"I am going to find a motel close by and fall unconscious." Terence stumbled away. "Message me."
"Where's Ken and Dai?" Ruì asked of her companion.
"Ken's gone on the third day, says he's got an emergency back at Secretary Chen's," Effi reminded her. "Dai said he'd come back when the Boss is sane again."
"… Alright." Ruì licked her cracked lips. From the looks of it, she would be sleeping at the office again.
The lift opened.
"Richard!" At the sight of Gwen's dashing cousin, her heart was suddenly aflutter. The others followed, bowed, then took the lift down.
"Ruì," Richard acknowledged the secretary. "Is Gwen…"
"Asleep," Ruì explained her bosses' situation to the young man. "Oh, hello there, Miss Mayuree."
The House of M's heir was also one of Ruì's bosses. According to Gwen, she was now the boss of her boss.
"I have something for her." Mayuree indicated her Storage Ring. "It's from my brother. He said it'd cheer her up."
"She's asleep just now," Ruì said.
"We'll wait." Richard smiled attractively. "Have you eaten? Know any place good?"
Ruì's face flushed a bright crimson; all thoughts of fatigue fell from her mind.
"I do!" she answered enthusiastically. "I know just the place!"
"T-three thousand and three hundred?!" Dean Luo spluttered, spilling the tea he'd been nursing.
"And Ten," Walken finished. "Also, she's picked up Enchantment."
"One thing at a time." Luo raised a hand in protest. "Mao, how in the world? Kyoto or Tsinghua takes home the cup every other year just breaking twenty-five hundred!"
"She also liberated Burma, by accident." Walken raised his teacup in the manner of a man having read a mildly interesting scandal in the tabloids. "I expressly forbid her, you should know. It's all on record, I am sure."
"And Enchantment! That's good news." Dean Luo paced back and forth, then stopped. "Did you just say…"
"Then fought a pseudo Mythic Naga to a standstill, then triple-teamed it with a Thunder Dragon and a Thunder Wyvern," Walken continued with a deadpan dryness only the English could afford.
Dean Luo stopped by the alcohol cabinet and poured himself a stout glass of Maotai; his heart wasn't as shatterproof was it had been in the old days.
"Revived a dead woman by accident."
Luo spilt half a glass of the precious alcohol over his hand and the carpet, filling the room with the pleasant scent of fermented sorghum. "Necromancy?"
"Nothing of the sort, I think it has to do with her Druidic Essence," Walken calmed his old friend before correcting himself. "Well, Draconic-Essence."
"Eric, you old fox." Luo sucked in a breath of cold air. "Mao, what have you unleashed."
"We." Walken replaced his cup, then repeated himself. "And Wen as well. If we share the credit, we share the blame."
"There's bad news as well..." Walken explained the problem with Kitty before elaborating on what the team had told him. "But then there's the good news."
Dean Luo optioned to find a place to sit so that if he went into cardiac shock, he could be revived with his dignity intact.
"She liberated both Mandalay for the CCP and Yangon for the Mageocracy?"
"Well, we can't say it like that. The Yinglong's scion is the mastermind I am sure. If I'd been in the thick of it, I would have suspected Ruxin the moment he came out on top. No one, not even a Dragon, comes out with a total victory without meticulous scheming. If you want my opinion, I think the old drake's gotten a bit too greedy. Considering one of Gwen's companions died, the secrecy won't do either of them favours in the future."
"Now that's a confrontation I am not looking forward to." The Dean sighed. "BUT, the result is that we have a seeded spot for the IIUC?"
"Mao!" Luo was sweating. "First time we've gotten close, and we're going straight to the main competition!"
"MASTER!" Ellen teleported into the Dean's office. "There are hundreds of reporters beating down the front gate! They want to talk to Fudan's IIUC team! They want interviews. They're clamouring for Gwen!"
"Where's Gwen now?"
"Working - believe it or not." Walken grimaced, tapping his forehead. "She needs time to sweat off her angst, I am afraid. Her final School of Magic didn't come easy."
"Ellen." The Dean nodded understandingly. "Get me Tei and anyone else from the team who's at Fudan right now. Set up the Guanghua tower's auditorium. When's the match broadcasting?"
"In two days, Sir."
"I'll talk to her. For now, she needs time."
"Thanks." the Dean peeked outside, where already he could see more reporters gathering. "Ellen, clear my schedule. It's going to be a busy week."
Gwen realised she must have fallen asleep, because she had lost consciousness during the day, and now it was night time.
The office was deserted, though that wasn't a bad thing.
When she moved from the table, a blanket shifted from her back, still warm from her body's heat.
Good old Ruì, she thought to herself, then leaned back in her chair.
It had felt good.
Killing Minty, that is.
Watching the woman's smug face as she goaded Marong and Mayuree, she had never felt so sure of anything in her whole life. When Caliban struck its appendages through her unresisting body, she had felt a sadistic rapture.
Then came the horror, and the pleasure, which was mild in so far as the scale was concerned, but still enough to buckle her legs with quivering delight. That had been the worst, as all her pent up self-loathing ripped out of her oesophagus, emptying her stomach twice over, painting the jade-tiled floors.
Then strangely, catharsis.
The Greeks weren't kidding when they privileged Nemesis, divine balancer of life, dark-faced daughter of Justice. There was something to be said of having a good purge now and then.
After that, she picked herself from the floor. Consulted with Mayuree and Marong, then switched off something in her head so that she could coast through the darkness that came with her crisis of conscience.
Two days later, she was back in Chengdu.
Then, without visiting her much anticipated Pandaren, she was back in Shanghai, being hugged by Petra, who gave her a big, sloppy, comforting kiss on the forehead.
At Petra's behest, Gwen had promised to call Babulya the next morning, but then she looked up at the ceiling and recalled that only a few walls away, was Kitty's now vacant bedroom.
That very night, dressed in her best professional outfit, she showed up to work and inspected her worker's progress. The next morning, she requested an interim report from Magus Maymaruya, as well as stacks of Tonglv documents, after which the rest became a blessed blur of unthinking arithmetics and compounding interests.
According to Marong, when he declared in favour of Yangon Tower following their disposal of Maymyint, the lesser factions in the House of M broke into a riot of succession fantasies. All quailed, however, when the Vairagi of the Shadowmen made an appearance and affirmed their allegiance.
When Marong's contemporaries began calling him the new Me Nu, Marong pointed out that instead, it was Mayuree who now reign at the House's peak. Mayuree, a companion to she who defeated the Tyrant, who in turn had the backing of the new master of Kachin, Manipur and Nagaland. A woman who undoubtedly would come one day into her own Tower.
A fox who borrows the tiger's borrowing of the dragon's terror? Gwen had read over the letters of loyalty, to which she responded with a full financial review.
That and she recommended for Marong to begin training an elite troop of accountants.
"Borrow some of the NoMs to teach the Shadowmen," she had Messaged back. "You can call them Mayuree's Shadow Auditors."
"I shall begin at once," Marong informed her. "Also, your requested items will arrive in Shanghai soon. Take it 'on the house'. What we owe you will take time to repay. For now, let us shoulder some of your burdens."
What Marong referred to was her request for upper-tier Contingency Rings for Lulan, Richard and a new ring for Mayuree. At the 10,000 HDM tier, the rings came with contracts for triage and sanctuary in the Mageocracy's Towers.
Stripping out of her workwear, she took a shower in her private bathroom, feeling as though she was peeling off a layer of old skin. As she slid into the silk she had gotten from Hangzhou, a recollection resurfaced.
She dropped her brush.
"OH, SHIT!" She cursed, almost slipping on the tiles. Frantically, she punched in the Glyphs to dial her Babulya.
"Gwen?" Pale Divination bloomed beside her ear. "How are you feeling?"
"Babulya! I am sorry for not calling sooner!" Gwen apologised profusely. "I'd been so distracted by everything that's happened. Is Yeye there? I want to apologise as well."
"I am at the hospital right now," her Babulya's soothing voice came through. "Richard told us everything. Congratulations on the match. The official results are out tomorrow, so I hear."
"Thanks, Babulya." Gwen felt a sudden exhilaration. It was a beautiful thing to have one's anticipations confirmed. "Everyone did their best. How about you? How have you been?"
"Busy as always."
"The usual, trying to chase after you, although it looks like he may have some distance to go. Guo said that you liberated a country?"
"Aha…" Gwen laughed awkwardly. "I think you should ask Uncle Jun about that. I happened to be in the right place at the right time."
"He's such a good boy." Her grandmother sighed happily. "Guo's work has become much easier since Jun found himself with that dragon princess. To think my boy would find himself a dragon-kin! Who'd have imagined he would find someone older than his parent? I didn't know where to put my face when Ayxin called me 'mother'!"
The shared laughter dispelled some of Gwen's residual ill feelings.
"Ah, Babulya, you're the best."
"I try, dear. So, I am assuming you're calling because of Hai?"
"I forgot to Message Father," Gwen confessed. "I told Uncle Jun I would, and yet… did Qīn…"
"She did," her babulya informed her. "I delivered the child myself. A boy."
"Thank you." Her babulya's tone was ambivalent. "Your Yeye says he's torn, but I can see that he's the happiest he has been in decades. The child's name is Shui. Song Shui."
"Aye, a name which we hope he lives up to, for there shall be trials for the child yet."
"Is he going to be another Salt Mage?"
"Let's hope not." Klavdiya's voice grew uncertain. "Mao willing."
"I'll call him and congratulate him," Gwen promised.
"You do that, dear, and take care. Will you be joining us on Sunday? There'll be a gathering at home."
"I'll try, babulya."
The Message died.
"Gwen, you're up?" came the voice of Richard.
"Yeah." She stretched her fingers. "What's up?"
"Well, you've been in a cave for four days, so we'd thought to bring you some real food."
"God, yes." Gwen realised that indeed, she was finally hungry. For four days she had survived on chocolate, coffee and magically appearing take-out that Ruì had left on her table.
"Mia has a package for you as well. Says it's from Marong."
"Cool, see ya soon."
Gwen then left a Message for her father, lacking the courage to deal with her old man's frustrations.
"Dad, congratulations on your new son. Song Shui, was it? It's a good name. Please give my best wishes to Aunty Qīn as well. There'll be a gift from me soon!"
She shut the Message Glyph before someone could reply.
After a few more minutes of darkness and sullen silence, she Glyphed on the lumen-globes so that the office grew bright as day.
The door opened.
"Gwen, how are you feeling?" Richard visibly appeared to relax when he entered the bright room and saw her in a pastel dress. "We got you an XL dan-dan mien."
"Cheers." Gwen stood so that all her friends could see she was indeed better than the bedraggled hellion that had returned from Burma with a chip on her shoulder and a bone to chew. "Sorry, everyone. I had lots of accounting to do, both personal and business."
Richard had returned with more people than she thought. Including Ruì, there was also Mayuree, Lulan, Kusu and Petra.
Hugs were exchanged all around before her companions made themselves comfortable. While Gwen ate, Ruì made tea and prepared biscuits and cakes for the Mages, playing the part of a perfect secretary.
"So what's this package?" Gwen asked after an exchange of teas, cakes and ices. "The Rings?"
Her Diviner materialised an intricate looking wooden chest from storage.
"The Rings are being sent to Fudan T2. Marong says these are from your collaborator." Mayuree invoked the unlocking incantation, then opened the box.
Within the chest, nestled in velvet silk, were two perfectly preserved Creature Cores, so dense with Earthen mana that their observers felt as though a mild Petrification spell had come into effect.
"Mao…" Lulan was the first to react, accompanied by an open-mouthed Petra. The Sword Mage alone was the Earthen Mage, and she felt an unmistakable connection to the stones. "A-are those… higher-tier Naga Cores?"