Richard was of two minds.
A few days after the press had stripped every shred of credible information from Fudan's infamous sorceress, he received his long-awaited CCs. As an unexpected boon for acquiring Mandalay, Dean Luo generously informed the contestants that the PLA furthermore contributed an additional 169 CCs to round their total to 500.
Which incidentally brought Richard's contributions to 1340 CCs.
Arguably, his Gwen-gambit had paid off more than he could have ever hoped. However, the dangers he was facing were concurrently above and beyond anything he could have imagined. His cousin bred trouble; he knew that, but to be trafficking with dragons, bargaining with demi-gods and slaying Nagas?
He would like to attend their next round with no regrets.
"Gwen, can I talk to you for a minute?" Richard felt tongue-tied as he made his case. Ever since his earliest days at Prince's, he had cherished the sanctity of his independence, which made his outlandish request ever more uncertain.
"Sure." His cousin yawned against the kitchen chair, so defenceless and overtrusting that Richard had to look away.
"I need a favour," he said awkwardly. "If you're willing to grant it."
"Of course, Dick." Gwen curled her legs, then scrutinised his face with bemusement. "What can I do for ya?"
Am I that unnatural? Richard stopped himself from adjusting his facial muscles less he appeared yet queerer.
Richard cleared his throat.
"Do you have 1000 CCs right now?"
His cousin blinked away her sleepiness.
"I've just reached 1340 CCs with our gains from the IIUC," Richard explained. "But I can only bring over one of my parents. That and we're going to be in a lot of danger moving forward, so I would like a favour to set my mind at ease - so I can be of use without reserve."
"Ah." A look of realisation dawned on Gwen's face. Her eyes softened. "Shall we go check? Right now?"
"Please." Richard put on a smile. "I want to migrate Kwan and Tali at the same time."
"Aww." Gwen reached in and gave him a warm hug about the shoulders, filling his nostrils with the scent of shampoo. In truth, being touched was something Richard loathed, though Gwen's tactile habits had since grown on him. "You don't have to be so awkward. I haven't seen you like this in so long!"
"I know you're not fond of them."
"Richard." His cousin pulled herself away. "Don't be ridiculous! Let me get changed."
When she returned, Gwen had attired herself in a long-sleeve tee and ankle pants, hiding her face and hair with a cap. They then made for T2 at the Guanghua Towers, bypassing the paparazzi hanging about Fudan B1 by jumping over the barrier fence. At T2, however, there was no masking her identity.
"You have 1230 CCs." An enamoured clerk exchanged his discretion for an autograph. "Would you like to see the spell-list?"
"Thanks, not right now." Fudan's headliner awarded the young man a winning smile before returning to a private room with Richard, who realised the broadcast showing her dogs tearing apart the Naga must have triggered an exponential demand for Morden's Hound.
"Who should I bring over?" she smiled at him. "Mum or dad?"
"Aren't there any spells you need?" Richard returned. "I seem to recall you needed Abjuration spells, not to mention Enchantment and new Evocation incantations."
"I'll fish them off Walken," Gwen smirked haughtily. "Come on. I thought immigration was your top priority, don't go soft on me now, big guy."
"You're my number one priority." Richard brushed off the double entendre.
"I bet you tell all the girls that." Gwen burst into laughter. His cousin then hugged him so tightly that he could hear his heart beating with honest anticipation. "Congratulations, Richard."
Richard clasped his cousin's shoulders.
The acquisition of 1000 CCs had taken him the better part of a year. Additionally, he had risked life and limb and sleep to purchase a condo near the second orbital ring for his parents, as well as enough crystals to restart their lives in Shanghai. With his Kwan and Tali settled, his filial debt would be repaid, and he would be free.
"I am happy for you." Gwen's voice played beside his cheeks. "I mean it."
He returned her blessing by raising and kissing her hand, something the Mageocracy taught as a part of its formalised doctrine.
"Well…" Gwen picked up her Message Device. "Shall we eat something to celebrate?"
Lulan found her cousin Jinwei standing politely by the training hall like a lost dog. After her acquisition of her Spirit, she had hardly left the Force Cage except to eat.
"Senior Li!" the young sorceress uttered in surprise. "What are you doing here?"
"Playing message boy." Her usually arrogant cousin's face was full of politeness, so much so that goosebumps appeared on her thighs. "I am going to be straight with you. The Clan would like to offer Kusu and yourself support. Not as a part of the Sect, but as family. With the advice your Captain gifted us, we hope for your understanding. Besides, Uncle Li misses his children."
"Advice?" Lulan cocked her head, ignoring the comment about her father. She knew that Gwen had told Captain Bai to speak to her Clan, but had been too preoccupied with her new Spirit.
"She said you're going to be our brand ambassador." Jinwei appeared equally flustered. "You're going to represent us on the international stage."
"Huh?" Lulan minced the word between her lips. "I am doing it for Gwen though, not for Huashan."
"But you'll be representing us." Jinwei baulked at Lulan's brutal honesty. "By exhibiting Huashan's skills."
"I don't care about that." Lulan shrugged.
Jinwei fought to keep his eye from twitching.
"Of course." He opened his palm to reveal a jade pendant. "This will allow you entry into our branch in Taicang, south of Nantong. Patriarch Dulian Li has said that if as long as you keep up the good fight, we're happy to open the Iron Hall to you and Kusu so that you can continue your studies."
"The Inner Hall?!" Lulan's ears perked up. "With the Clan's higher-tier techniques?"
"Er... yes," Jinwei affirmed her rhetorical question. "Additionally, regarding Nantong, if you could put in a word with Miss Song, the Patriarch's generosity would be boundless."
"Alright." His cousin eyed him up and down. "Shixiong, Can I ask for a favour as well?"
"Of course." Jinwei exhaled, finally relaxing. "What-"
Suddenly, a grip of iron took Jinwei by the wrist and pulled him into the training hall.
"If you want me to talk to Gwen, then fight me!" Lulan's toothy grin made him suddenly nervous. "Make me spew, or I am not telling her!"
Dai Fung had a dilemma.
Ever since he had graduated from university, he had never thought that there would come a day when he'd worry about not having done his homework.
And yet, here he was, fearful of losing the good opinion of a girl almost five years his junior.
When he had returned to Nantong to deliver the good news of the funding he had secured, his father had patted him on the back, then additionally bestowed him the thankless task of dealing with a conspiracy of secretariat officials from Central.
"Beijing wants to up-scale stage two; that or arranging for the schedule to be pushed up," a bespectacled official informed him. "We are looking forward to your continued expertise, Mr Fung."
Immediately, Dai knew he was twelve miles in the Front and knee deep in Undead. Since Gwen's departure, with a Centurion card in hand, he had wined, dined, partied, kissed ass and had his ass kissed in return by Shanghai's high society, but he had done minimal paperwork.
And so, upon hearing that their dragon-lady was no longer in a dour mood, he hastened back to the office with a large bouquet of rare and expensive flowers.
"Too risky, never intervene when a project is running smoothly." Gwen listened to Ruì annotate Dai's report, followed by the statements from central. Not far from the duo, Caliban munched on the flowers. "Tell them no."
"I don't think that's an option." The young man kept a respectful distance. No matter how tantalising the sorceress's delicious visage, what had begun as desire had transformed into admiration, then dread. "Our orders are to expand or expedite."
"YOUR orders. If so, then expand," Dai's boss's answer came without hesitation. "But it takes time to survey the land, clear the monsters, relocate the NoMs- about as much time as it takes for Stage 2's nominal time frame."
"But the report…"
"Easy, inject an estimate three-year projection in the annual report, with a provision for the delay. Prime our creditors with a twelve-month clause for their lending, if they pre-settle, offer a minimal rate of interest, for those willing to delay settlement, offer a guarantee of purchase, option the deposit with a six-month delay."
Ruì made furious scribbles into a data slate while Dai tried his best to catch up to Gwen's train of thought. Maybe she could be more convincing.
"Some of the committee members from Central would like to speak with you if you could make a trip to Nantong…"
"Denied." Gwen shook her head, tapping her fountain pen against a balance book. "Tell them it's a conflict of interest, tell them I am on thin ice. Tell them General Secretary Miao would like to have a word if they insist."
"Why would Secretary Miao be interested in this?"
"Maybe they can call and find out." He watched her lips curl. "October is upon us, and my international round starts in November, which brings me to our next point. Why are these reports coming to me? I thought you and Ken are taking over matters in Shanghai?"
Dai appeared lost for words. It wasn't as though he could say he still had no idea how all this worked.
"Master Fung is trying his best, Ma'am," Ruì attempted to dispel their CFO's mounting displeasure with diplomacy. "He's doing very well in securing additional funding."
"By not checking accounts and making sure no one is stealing from us." Gwen's accusation struck Dai's fear right in the flesh. "Ken?"
"Yes, Ma'am?" Ken materialised beside Dai.
"What's the latest quarterly from Chief Ma?"
"Two members discharged from the board and er- forty or so from middle management, ten from central division, plus the usual on-site issues with shoddy materials, boundary marking and labour abuses."
"About 120,000 HDMs, Ma'am." Dai noticed Ken glancing at him, causing his face to flush.
"And how much has Mr Fung brought in for us?"
"About 400,000 HDMs in future investments are pledged. About a quarter have signed with Tonglv."
"Now." Their boss shifted in her swivel chair. "How many of those that Dai brought in were involved in defrauding the treasury, making a quick buck on land sales and scamming our inventory?"
Ken choked. "Ma'am?"
"The answer is about half." The ice maiden tapped a report stubbed so excessively that it was almost twice the thickness. "Dai, what are you bringing into Tonglv? How do you even hope to double the expansion when your net gain for your father's state-sanctioned enterprise after six-months is less than what I could make in a month?"
Ruì almost swooned as the numbers unravelled itself.
"How could I know?" Dai protested. Was he supposed to read the reports weekly or what? Who had time for that?
His missus boss lifted herself from the leather chair.
"I am not going to ask about your Centurion account's expenditure." She leaned against the table and rested her leg in a way that left a heel tapping the wood with disapproval. "I am also not fussed whether or not you're making money for us, but you have to realise, I won't be here in November, in December, all the way through to February, assuming our victories continue unabated. That's FOUR months, Dai, almost half-a-year. Is there going to be a Shanghai office left when I return?"
Dai sulked, his usually masculine face twisting in agony. "I can fix this."
"No. You can't," Gwen interrupted him. "Terence. Effi."
"Yes, Ma'am?" The two approached.
"Count for me how many times Dai consulted the two of you."
For Dai, the patterned herringbone carpet suddenly became very interesting.
"Master Fung is very sociable," her secretary offered her best opinion of their walking, talking avatar of nepotism.
"Dai, what's the canal's turnover for September?"
"…" Dai hesitated. His tormentor may as well have asked him for the price of a banana.
"... I see." Gwen's voice remained collected. "Did you forget why I hired Terence and Effi?"
"FOR YOU!" her voice snapped at him like a whip. "You don't have to do the accounts, damn it, but you need to know them! How in Tonglv's name are you even pulling in investments when you don't know the state of the canal's balance sheets? What are you investing? Which division? How much land is left?"
"Did you know that the canal's orbital ring-road is contracted to Leiwong Construction, who sub-contracted to Tai-Wei, who then subcontracted it to Jianhong, an NoM firm for a quarter of the initial price? What the hell happened to competitive tender? Why is seventy-five per cent of the cost going into a drain? Why not build a TWELVE lane highway with Jianhong for half the price? When this gets upstairs, Chairman Tu will choke you like a lame dog, assuming your father doesn't first."
The angel-faced harpy sighed, then patted a petrified Dai on the shoulder.
Dai wanted to leave, but knew he was firmly entrenched in their unhappy union, riding the buckling dragon with only the abyss below.
"Ruì, brief Mr Fung." Gwen's disregard battered his bruised ego as she brushed past him. "I am going out for lunch."
Half a campus away, Marie-Roslyn Wen observed a strange numbness in her fingers.
"I am happy for you."
"Thank you, Master." Petra remained her polite self, though Wen wondered if the girl was at all being sarcastic. "Nephrite makes a curious medium."
They had been working on the regeneration-prevention properties of the Void Element on non-magical mammals when Wen's eyes narrowed at the peculiar presence of a crystalline cube the colour of mutton fat.
"Master, Gwen was kind enough to gift me with a Spirit," Petra had intoned flatly, suggesting her cousin had shouted a lobster dinner. "I managed to attune with it."
After the initial shock, Wen was glad her faculties had remained unruffled - for it was unbecoming for a British-educated, sixty-year-old woman without a Mineral Spirit worth its weight in Cores to demonstrably suffer a meltdown. "Very good, may I see what it does?"
"Atlas is a wily one," Petra had agreed to a demonstration. "A tier 7 or 8 Naga spirit, I am told. As such, it will take some time to master its many natural abilities."
"Ah—" Wen nodded. "I see. Many abilities. Very good."
Wen's apprentice passed a cube over the table. "The nephrite cubes are stronger, more stable. I do believe they could hold spells of equal tier to the complexity of glyphs used to seal the manifesting effect."
Wen palmed Petra's fist-sized cube, inspecting the material, noting its superior hardness and composition.
"I have not tested the full extent of Atlas' storage capacity, but I do believe that currently, out of a total of sixty cubes, I could generate another twenty. With future mastery, I would venture to say that doubling my capacity is within the realm of possibility."
"How wonderful," Petra's instructor croaked. "What else?"
"Considering the nature of Nagas, I experimented with multi-casts. Currently, I can activate one additional cube per spell-cycle." Petra threw a cube into the air, where it appeared to be caught by a semi-invisible appendage. "It's quite interesting; please observe — Light!"
The spell cube erupted into feeble daylight. A few seconds later, a new spell cube engendered.
"I am trying to figure out how to manifest more arms—"
"An arm? Your arm?" Wen interrupted her student. "Gwen gave you a humanoid, sapient Spirit?"
"A draconic one, yes," Petra demurely affirmed her master's enquiry.
Magister Wen inhaled.
"Mine was a leftover," Petra assured her Master that the gift was nothing too serious. "Lulan got the Jadeite Naga Spirit; it's stronger than mine by at least a tier."
Wen realised she must have closed her eyes for a moment, that or she blacked out, she wasn't sure. When she came to, Petra was shaking her and asking if she was alright.
"I did tell you that the Dean wanted you on Gwen's team, didn't I?" Wen changed the subject. "I received confirmation of your eligibility yesterday."
"No, Ma'am," the young woman replied. "Now, I know."
"You will be my eyes. I need you to record everything Gwen does, take notes on how her Void manifests in the field, how she uses her magic, how her enemies react, how her power grows. I'll teach you the diagnostic magic."
"Of course," Petra agreed. "I am your co-author after all."
"That's true," Wen acknowledged the fact. As Walken would say, when there's a common benefit, trust is a simple thing. From behind the sample cage, she observed her assistant's comely face, which some would say was more striking than even that of her cousin's. Had Petra elected to remain in her old profession, she would have been celebrated, feared, loathed, loved, possibly even worshipped, but fate was a funny thing to gift a girl like that with the Mineral trait. "Anything else Atlas can do?"
"That's it for now." Petra pointed to one the cages. "Master, G14 has died."
"Drat!" Wen rubbed her eyes, suddenly exhausted, an unbecoming display from a senior researcher such as herself. "I am going to take a break. As for you, lower the dosage and up the Positive Energy for F01."
"Master?" her student demanded of her. "Gwen's requesting a luncheon..."
The Song Estate.
"Oh my, you shouldn't have!" Gwen's babulya gushed at the precious stones crowding the table.
"Klavdiya's right, you really shouldn't have," Guo remarked drily.
"Ah…" Only under the watchful eye of Guo did Gwen acknowledge the hypocrisy of her gifting looted loot from Kachin to her family. "… Mayuree gave these to me as a sort of get-well gift after the Naga incident."
"Humph!" Guo grunted. "I take it these are worth many times their weight in crystals."
"Nothing I can't make in half-a-month," Gwen promised with a smile. "Think nothing of it. I'd much rather share it with Percy than sell it for HDMs at the House of M Auction."
"Thanks, Sis! Can we keep these, Yeye?" Percy palmed an apple-sized block of mutton-fat nephrite. "What are these good for?"
"The smaller pieces are for single-use protection charms like Absorb Elements," Guo explained, tapped the stones with his fingers. "The larger ones can be combined with Cores to make passive wards like Contingency Mineral Shields or Mage Armour. The Jadeite makes charms that banish extra-planar creatures, like your sister's Familiars."
"Ho Ho." Percy made a face at his sister.
"Assuming you find someone to scribe it." Gwen raised her chin. "Got pocket money to spare?"
"He'll be working soon." Guo's suspicion finally relented. "He'll be apprenticing under a kill-team from the Ghosts. Percy needs to be whetted before he grows blunt."
"You're pushing him too soon," Klavdiya complained. "Hai hated it when you sent him to Hebei."
"It's my idea," Percy intervened. "I want real combat! I want to fight monsters, and I want to see the Front! Not even Gwen has been up north, have you, Sis?"
"Nope." Gwen ruffled her brother's hair. "The Undead, eh? Can you handle it?"
"Salt purifies the dead!" Percy smirked arrogantly. "Yeye said so."
"That it does," Guo said.
"Hey, Sis," Percy snorted through haughty nostrils. "How about a duel? Want to see how much I've grown?"
Gwen made an "O" with her lips. "Ho? Feeling antsy?"
"Percy has recently attained tier 4 in Evocation." Guo's chest visibly puffed with pride. "And tier 2 in both Transmutation and Abjuration."
Gwen clapped. Being what Walken termed an Omni-Mage was no reason to make light of her brother's labour. It wasn't as though she could snort and suggest Percy spell-drain yet more vagrants.
"Do we have a Force Barrier?"
"In the training hall." Percy pointed a thumb toward the east wing. "After I blew out a wall, Yeye had his guys install a mid-tier training barrier."
"You remodelled the hall?" Kalvdiya glared at her husband.
Considering how Gwen had for months shared a single bathroom with Richard while sleeping in an unfurnished trainer's room, Guo appeared embarrassed by his spendthrift.
"Yeye, never mind that." She had since long gotten used to the favouritism, seeing it as immutable as Alesia's temper. "Come on, Percy, let's see what you've got!"
Magus Alan Ma stood just outside the fortress-like Hongqiao ISTC hub, counting the seconds in his head.
He was waiting for a beautiful sorceress, a chore that would have been the envy of his peers- until he opened the woman's dossier.
Alesia De Botton.
A Combat Magus possessing both Evocation and Transmutation: estimated to be between tier six and seven. A veteran of the Coral Sea conflict, unofficial apprentice to the late Henry Kilroy, active in the field since she was fourteen. In 1997, Alesia destroyed the library of a Tower Magister in Sydney over a dispute, losing her military rank. Since then, she served as an independent Tower operator under Henry Kilroy. During the battle of Sydney, she managed to activate a strategic-class Spell of Mass Destruction single-handedly. Engaged to Magister Gunther von Shultz, Tower Master of Sydney. The PLA Tower considers De Botton a Class I individual with a category IV danger rating.
A Class I individual was on par with a state dignitary, while Category IV implied she was capable of wiping out a district, and that suppressing the sorceress would involve a Party lead by a Combat Magus. Neither classification made Alan's job easier.
The double doors opened.
"Miss De Botton!" Alan intervened before the woman's long strides took her from the entrance.
Physically, Alesia De Botton was both stunning and commanding, though what had enthralled Alan was the sheer volume of red wrapped around the sorceress's hourglass figure, splashing the monochrome concrete exterior of the city with a rare pigment of retina-searing scarlet.
The Scarlet Sorceress paused.
"And you are?"
Alan forced himself to calm. Here was a woman who had killed more sapient beings than Alan had eaten bowls of rice.
"Alan Ma, at your service, Ma'am." Alan bowed. "I am your contact from the PLA Tower. While you're in Shanghai, I shall be your liaison. If there is anything you need, please do not hesitate to ask."
"You got the car I wanted?"
"Yes Ma'am, it's been arranged at Pudong's behest."
"Good." De Botton removed her sunglasses, revealing a pair of strikingly lapis irises that seemed to dig into Alan's soul. Startlingly, she appeared melancholic, and some of her make up was smudged. "Is there anything I should know?"
"Please refrain from engaging in combat while in the city-"
"Of course, I know that." His guest nodded. "Do you know the way to Fudan?"
"Fudan University?" Alan was taken aback by her request. "I do—"
"Good, I'll drive." The Fire Mage replaced her glasses, then wrinkled her nose as she glanced up at the enormous girth of the PLA Tower looming over the city like a monstrous spider. "Let's hurry, tiger. I've got people to sear."
"See, Ma'am?" Alan doublechecked his Ioun Stone, but his VIP was already several strides ahead, making for the wine-coloured convertible in the distance.