The underwhelming headlined, "Hellish Training at Fudan: Gwen Song Injured!" made the fourth page of the People's Telegraph, accompanied by an apology from Alesia de Botton, Heroine of the Coral Sea Conflict, and a hefty fine in CCs and HDMs for illicit use of magic. A day later, a second statement from Magister Gunther Shultz crawled its way through the grapevine.
"Miss Gwen Song's relationship with Magus de Botton and I will be clarified in time." The charismatic man smiled for the lumen-recorders. "At this point, the details are well known to those who have a right to know. Until then, I wish our sorceress fair winds in her endeavours."
The last remark was well calculated, leading to yet more speculation. Some professional commentators stated that it made perfect sense for Gwen Song to be Henry Kilroy's hidden disciple, for her access to not one, but two unique Familiars smacked firmly of the later Tower Master's most lauded area of magic.
Others critiqued that this was yet another attempt by outside forces to subvert the fairness of the IIUC, hinting that someone with as much influence as Shultz should not be publicly backing a candidate.
Meanwhile, the victim of the fiasco herself spent two days at her grandmother's hospital with mana sickness, falling in and out of fatigued sleep as her body recovered.
"You can manifest TWO of those spells at once?" Alesia sat on one side of Gwen's bed, while Walken sat on the other.
"Ariel duplicates them through its horns..." Gwen cuddled the mewling Kirin as it sat between her legs. Below, Caliban coiled under the bedstand. Thanks to her babulya's influence, a VIP room at the Second PLA hospital was an absolute certainty.
"Eee! EE!" Ariel cried out.
"It's growing back!" Gwen kissed her Familiar's scalp. "I can see some fuzz already."
"Sorry..." Alesia patted Ariel's silky fish-tail.
Arriving at the hospital had been a harrowing experience for the Scarlet Sorceress. When Alesia had finally met Gwen's frantic grandmother, her shame was so dire that all of her prideful arrogance dissolved at once. She apologised profusely to the grim-faced old lady whom Gwen had repeatedly labelled the kindest human being on this living earth, barring their late master.
On the opposite side, seeing Alesia so cowed filled Walken with satisfaction, for he had finally found a hard counter to the indomitable Alesia de Botton's fiery impulses. In his memory, Kilroy never fully reigned in Alesia. Without Kilroy, Gwen and Alesia were made of far more malleable metal.
But that would come later. For now, Alesia's temporary loss of temerity afforded Walken a chance to initiate a Grey Faction speciality. With great solemnity, he slid forward an elegant wooden box bound with plated mithril and etched gold.
"Magus de Botton, for a while now, I had hoped to return this to its rightful holder. In offering this olive branch between us, I hope I can be of some help to yourself, Magister Shultz, and of course, our mutual student."
Seeing that Alesia appeared hesitant, Gwen took the liberty of opening the brass-buckled lid. Within, twelve egg-sized Ioun Stones winked back at the pair of suddenly emotional women.
"Master's collection!" Alesia gasped.
"Opa made these!" Gwen touched a hand to her lips, then corrected herself. "Well, some of these…"
"Only a few are truly precious," Walken explained. "Though a prismatic set is all the rarer when gathered. Would you like an introduction? I don't think either of you has seen Henry's completed collection."
"YES!" Gwen's eyes sparkled. Ioun Stones were a girl's best friend.
"Let's begin with the brilliant-cut Garnet," Walken began, pointing to the first stone. "Henry picked this one up in Tanzania while suppressing the Popobawa, a kind of primordial vampire. It allows one to resist physical side-effects, such as being stunned."
"Ooo..." Gwen felt her fingers twitch.
"That one's a trilliant-cut Amethyst. Believe it or not, Henry said he found this one inside a Bone Golem in Tajikistan, guarding the tomb of an old Necromancer. It grants protection against Necromantic magic."
"This one is a mixed-cut Aquamarine: that's a gem with an easy history. Kilroy received this one during the Coral Sea War. I am fairly certain you were there, Alesia. Gunther retrieved it during that clash in Hamilton, do you recall?"
"The one with the seahorses? Their spurt-lances was a bitch to deal with."
"Yes, the Wave Riders," Walken corrected her. "The Captain of the Coral Knights of Queen Zeim had this on his helmet."
Alesia held the stone nostalgically.
Gwen cooed with worship.
"And now enchanted to allow water breathing and superior movement underwater." Walken moved across to the next gem, a fingernail-sized diamond. "This one's a rare one. A Royal Asscher Radiant Diamond. What do you think it does?"
"Be my best friend?" Gwen's eyes gleamed at the ten-thousand fold facade refracting the light. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
Walken chuckled at the girl's undisguised greed. "No. It enhances your Shield, making the surface more rigid, like a Mineral Mage. Perfect for elementalists. This next one is an emerald-cut Moss Stone, from the Elfhome of Mossvale in Ireland. It enhances positive energy, and so are useful for healers. I had thought of giving you this one before, but your negative energy would likely shatter or disable it. Your grandfather was the inscriber."
"Aww… what's this one?"
"Ah- that's a Briolette-cut Alexandrite," Alesia interjected. "I recall Master receiving it from the Ural Mountains, from the Hill Dwarves of Yekaterinburg. It's beyond precious."
"Correct," Walken affirmed Alesia's recollection. "The Alexandrite has an inscription-cut patented by the Enchanter-Meister Gabi Tolkowsky, containing a superior Comprehend Language engraving, allowing for communication in Sylvan, Elven, Dwarven, and twenty-seven Demi-human languages."
Gwen gulped, her drake-tainted soul aching for the stone's ownership.
"And these are masterworks inscribed by Surya." Walken finger-walked through the next few. "The Brilliant Ruby enhances fire affinity and provides heat resistance. The Barion Sapphire does the same for Ice and Water Magic. The Pyramidal Topaz allows for supplementary affinity for Air and Lightning, and finally, the Tiger's Eye empowers Earth."
Two more Ioun Stones remained.
"This one is a failure." Walken pointed to a Teardrop Pink Tourmaline. "Its suppose to enable mental restoration, but it instead grants resistance to poisons. I don't know what Magus Huang was doing when he made this."
Probably distracted by something erotic, Gwen hazarded a guess.
"I suppose that means its rare in an unintended way." Walken shrugged. "Finally, we have another old-world Asscher-cut, this one's a Blue Zircon, the pride and joy of Henry's collection- it once belonged to your brother-in-craft."
"Does Gunther know the Asscher family?" Gwen inquired, impressed with the brilliance of the Ioun Stone.
"They're acquainted." Alesia cleared her throat.
"There's a very awkward bit of modern history there…" Walken scratched his head. "Before the establishment of the Pan-European Treaty of Versaille after the Beast Tide, the city-states of Europe descended into a sort of resource-madness. They fought over history, grudges, religion, trade routes, colonies, new Frontiers; you name it. It was the Golden Age of Spellcraft warfare, and the two major contenders were the Reich and the Mageocracy."
Gwen recollected that indeed, there had been mention of such things in her history books. As for "Modern History", her censored textbooks after the 1971 awakening of the Black Sea Dragon catalysed the rise of Magical Beasts around the world, coinciding with the rise of the Mermen Empires from the depth below. The pre-war period possessed nowhere near the same volume of information.
"That's right." Walken nodded. "Did you know Gunther's family was involved right up to their necks? I bet he never talks about that particular part of his past, hmm? When Berlin briefly occupied Amsterdam, Gunther's grandfather, Generalmajor Otto von Shultz, amassed a wealth of gems and artefacts, most of which Gunther had since returned to the surviving families. It's one of the reasons why he enjoys such renown in Europe, and why he left his homeland."
"An apologist," Alesia butted in. "That's what some people called him."
"Yes, well." Walken coughed. "It's not like England hasn't had its share of troubles. India, Burma, the razing of the Falkland Islands, those were exceptional times that called for extreme measures. In my estimation of Gunther, I think he chose to follow your Master, not because of criticism from the aristocracy, but because he had no wish to carry on what he saw as a tainted legacy. If I was the last von Shultz, carving out a new Frontier would also be my preferred Path."
"Gunther told me his old haunt was in Bavaria, near Breitenegg. They're minor nobility, aren't they?"
"Is that what he said?"
"Yes." Alesia coughed.
"Then that's that," Walken agreed.
Gwen chewed her lips, trembling with curiosity.
"So, what does this gem do?" Alesia changed the subject.
"It diffuses Negative Energy." Walken watched his student's face. "Kilroy requested it, but alas... "
The rest was best left unsaid.
"And you're returning this to us?" Alesia smacked her ruby-lips together. "Just like that."
"Well, its a bribe…" Walken confessed openly, proud of the fact. "Are you not sufficiently placated by the return of these priceless mementoes?"
"I see." Alesia pulled the box closer. "You shall live, for now. Gwen, what stones ya got?"
Gwen touched a hand to the back of her head. Hidden inside her hair and adhered to her neck was her babulya's Stone of Clarified Thought and a Comprehend Language stone. Revealing her pale, long neck, she showed them both to Alesia.
"What's that?" Walken pointed to an opalescent scale embedded at the base of her skull.
"Ah, that's Ayxin's gift," she explained with nonchalance. "It helps me regulate my Essence."
Her two instructors looked one another in the eye.
"You can attune up to four Stones, generally speaking." Alesia pulled back her hair to reveal that she too had a private collection, running from the base of her neck down between her attractive shoulders. "Mine are Ruby-Agate, Fire Opal. Pink Diamond, and a Blood Hematite."
Walken whistled. "An Asscher-cut Argyle Diamond? A gift from Gunther?"
Gwen wiggled her brows suggestively.
"No wonder she beat you black and blue. Your sister-in-craft is running no less than four rare damage-amplification Ioun Stones." Walken inclined his chin at Gwen, as though a great puzzle had resolved itself. "Little wonder her cantrip was at Fireball strength."
"Anyway." Alesia pulled out three stones - the Blue Zircon, the Radiant Diamond, and the Pyramidal Topaz. "These are yours. Pick one more."
"May I…" Gwen swallowed. For someone like her, a superior translation stone was unimaginably helpful. "Have the Alexandrite? Also, can I swap the topaz for the garnet?"
Alesia removed the purple gem and the garnet, then tossed it across the bed.
Gwen palmed the stones.
The Zircon would somehow mitigate some of her Negative Energy, hopefully in a manner akin to Percy's amulet.
The Alexandrite would improve her coherency and language options.
The Radiant Diamond increased the rigidity of her twin-Shields.
And finally, the Garnet would hopefully reduce the chance of her being stunned by disruptions and counterspells.
"Four for each of us." Alesia removed an inferior ruby from her neck, then attuned the one made by Gwen's Opa. "The activation glyph is inside the lid of the box. I'll take the rest to Gunther."
"Gotcha." Gwen removed her mundane translation stones from her neck, then embedded her new accessories through the attunement ritual inside the box. The only one she kept unadorned was the diamond, for she preferred the mental-fatigue negation offered by her babulya's gift.
"Now that our Master's legacy physically links us." Alesia pointed a finger to Walken. "It'll be easier to hunt down our prey."
Walken stared, as did Gwen.
"That was a joke."
"Hahaha…" Gwen laughed drily.
"Hohoho…" Walken joined in.
"One day, I am going to catch you red-handed." Alesia packed the box into her Storage Ring then glared at Walken. "Don't you think for a moment that I am going to let my innocent sister fall into your grubby hands."
"I wouldn't dream of it." Walken put up both palms as if in defeat. "I am her humble instructor, nothing more."
"As for you." Alesia turned toward her sister-in-craft.
Gwen swallowed. Maybe she should have equipped the diamond.
Alesia's lips curled. "I am going to pound some spell-doctrine back into your head."
By mid-October, the second round of the Asian Qualifiers had gone underway. With Fudan occupying one slot by default, the remaining teams competed for the remaining spot on Jeju Island. As for Gwen, Alesia made good on her promise of sparring her until she spewed, while Gwen retaliated by drinking Alesia under until she painted the sidewalks outside the Waldorf-Astoria.
"Alesia, why are your spells so damn fast?" Gwen inquired as she panted against the cold training barrier. "How much practice will I need?"
"A lot more, that and I am using Master's variants," Alesia notified her sister-in-craft. "I've been provisioned all the way to tier 8... "
One of the reasons why she had hasted-spells, Alesia explained, was because their Master improved them. That was also why she was teaching Gwen their master's Bilby's Hand.
"It's a spell you'll grow into." Alesia left her with an oft-heard aphorism. "Since I am here, let's do our best to get Maelstrom happening as well, shall we? Master's variation is much easier to utilise. Get up!"
Alesia's Boot Camp, as expected, was hell. Compared to Walken's training, her sister's methods were militant to the extreme, consisting of a level of physical and mental exhaustion that challenged even Gwen's Essence-infused stamina.
A week later, Gwen threw a big bash to introduce Alesia to her friends and family, including Ayxin. When rattling off the guest list and presenting each of her Shanghai allies, Alesia grew incredulous.
"You invited your father's brother and a dragon-kin, but not your Mother or Father?" Alesia knew Gwen had family troubles, but the extent of her sister's complex was only now beginning to materialise.
"I left it to babulya to invite father," Gwen corrected her sister-in-craft. "I feel awkward with his new kid, and his wife hates me... you know?"
As an orphan twice-over, Alesia felt she wasn't qualified to comment. She had only Gunther and Gwen to speak of, and her fiancè loathed the topic of his family.
A day later, the gathering took place at the Four Seasons' panoramic-lounge overlooking the Bund. There, Gwen graciously introduced Alesia to the famous PLA Captain known as the Ash Bringer, as well as the woman-shaped dragon, Ayxin of Huangshan.
"Nonsense, how could I compare to the Scarlet Sorceress?" Jun's modesty was pleasing to Alesia, who loathed her fame, especially when it transformed into infamy following the incident with Walken. The number of times Alesia had to accept duels because she couldn't withstand the goading couldn't be counted even with her toes.
While the two military professionals exchanged humblebrags, Gwen made small talk with Ayxin about her eldest.
"Ruxin says he couldn't have done it without you." Ayxin regarded Gwen with suspicion, studying the girl's aesthetic physique. For the occasion, Gwen wore a strapless halter-dress that juxtaposed a Victorian front with an almost scandalously revealing back. "You're not involved with my brother, are you?"
"What? No!" Gwen spluttered. "Ruxin is like, five-hundred? I am far too young for him, and he's far too old."
"But you're at the prime breeding age for humans, are you not?"
"WOA!" Gwen waved her hands. "Word choice!"
"What's this, does Gwen have a beau?" Alesia butted in, having heard the B-word.
"Both of my brothers are keen on your sister-in-craft," Ayxin taunted Jun's niece. "Two Princes of Huangshan, one effectively a demi-god by human standards, she should be so flattered."
"They're both dragons…" Gwen added flatly.
"Ah," Alesia teased Gwen about her fictional flings with the draconic demi-humans. "I would very much like to meet them one day. I don't know how Gunther would feel about you dating dragons, I mean, we're the Middle Faction, but hey, true love and all that."
"Bloody hell, Allie—" Gwen felt her back beginning to sweat. Ruxin was cool. His human form was a rung above Gunther, and the guy was diplomatic to boot, possessing just the right amount of goofiness, but Golos? Golos meeting Alesia? What would be the first thing out of his mouth? It was probably something like, "Oi, nice Fire Element, want sum fuk?" Followed by instant decapitation by Gunther. After that? The awakening of the Yinglong and the fall of Shanghai into the South China Sea.
"I would very much like to meet this Gunther of yours as well," Ayxin politely addressed Gwen's mentor. "The Morning Star's prowess, if what Jun says is true, is on par with Ruxin, though I find it difficult to believe that a human could attain such destructive potential."
"The rumours don't do him justice." Gwen chuckled. "He once decapitated a Leviathan with one spell."
"Then he must be a most impressive specimen!" Ayxin's voice took on a sudden seriousness. "Miss Alesia, if you have mated with Magister Shultz, why have you not spawned offspring?"
"What?" Alesia spluttered. "You mean babies? Well, I mean- we're not planning, not really…"
"I would like to know the details." Ayxin leaned in closer. "Are you having trouble conceiving? I require knowledge of how higher-tier Mages manage physiological..."
"Gwen, come here." Jun pulled her away. "Go join your cousins and your friends."
"Uncle, I am eighteen. I know how the dragons and the phoenixes work."
"Just… go. Please?"
"I'll be over there."
Jun exhaled with relief, then guided the gossiping women toward a private corner.
"Welcome back." Petra was having fun ingratiating herself into the team. As a trained professional, Gwen's cousin slid into the ranks as easily as a Spellcube into her Storage Ring.
"Thanks." Gwen took a glass of red wine from an attentive waiter. "How's everyone going?"
"Training day and night." Jiro was in seventh heaven when he found out that the Flower of Fudan would be a permanent addition to the team. According to his overzealous confession, he'd been crushing hard on Petra since he was a first-year. "I am at the moment mastering Bounding Flames after witnessing your Chain Lightning. Miss Petra, all my spells are at your disposal!"
"I am flattered." Petra clinked glasses with the Fire Mage. "I shall use them well."
Jiro's joy grew boundless. "Ow!"
Rene kicked him in the shins.
"How are the Spirits coming along?" Gwen asked both Petra and Lulan.
"A long way to go." Lulan seemed crestfallen. "I am still having a hard time against Jinwei. The Spirit is difficult to control."
"Aww." With a warm hug, Gwen assured her friend that her setback was temporary. "Lulu. I am confident you'll be able to master it and surprise us all."
"Gwennie?" Mayuree materialised, looking cute as a button in a lace mini dress.
"Mia! Where did you go?"
"A parcel arrived for us at the concierge." Mayuree raised her Storage Ring, then retrieved a Message Stone. "It's from Marong. He says it contains critical information for our next matches."
The rest of the team huddled.
"Let's take this somewhere private," Gwen recommended they move to a separate room. Perhaps in deference to Alesia, their instructor had not attended her party.
Mayuree invoked the secret glyph.
"Gwen, Marong here. I've got some information you might be interested in." The young man's voice came through the stone. "This won't hit the news for another week, but here are the latest payouts from the betting houses…"
Mayuree translated Marong's bookie lingo into a breakdown of their future opponents.
Oxford University was the top seed, the big dog, the proverbial sky above the sky, offering a mere one-point-two in odds to win the whole damn thing.
They were followed shortly by Europe's winners who beat France, Spain and Italy: Germany's Ludwig Maximilian University, and to no one's surprise, London's Royal Imperial Sorcerous College. Famously, the European competition was a microcosmic IIUC of its own accord, dubbed the "group of death", it was a warm-up to the Europe-only Inter-European University Cup in April.
Then came the Americans, Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Thaumaturgy in Cambridge, the east and west of a nation bisected by endless Purple and Black Zones from the deserts of Nevada to the Saurian wetlands of Mississippi.
After the favourites, came the underdogs.
Asia's twin participants consisted of Fudan University and Tokyo University, surprisingly boasting even odds, despite Tokyo's rank superiority.
Oceania's representative consisted of the University of Auckland and Nanyang Spellcraft University from the fortress city of Singapore. Thanks to the Mermen invasion, Australia's top institutions had been thrown into chaos, and so rescinded their participation, paving the way for Auckland. Nanyang was itself strongly affiliated with Oxford and Cambridge, established after alumni broke from the Mageocracy to support Singapore's independence in the 50s.
Meso and South America's winners were Cuzco National University and The School of the Golden Sun. Both were unorthodox colleges only recently with skin in the game, having embraced the teaching of Spellcraft a mere three decades prior and very much influential in fields yet unexplored by modern Spellcraft.
Finally, from North Africa, Cairo University and its southern sibling, the Sorcerous Academy of Pretoria, originally an offshoot of London Imperial, marked the challenge from the continent with the largest demi-human presence.
"Holy hell." Gwen grimaced. "What world-rank are we?"
Petra's lips pursed. "154th."
"Wow!" Gwen almost swirled the wine back into her glass. "What kind of competition are we looking at?"
"You sure you want to know?"
"Better now than later."
"Oxford is the undisputed No.1 Magical institution for Spellcraft, followed by Stanford, MIT and London Imperial vying for No.2 to 5. Tokyo is 29th. Nanyang is 12th, I think. LMU is 24th. Auckland is in the 90s, and Pretoria in the 80s. The only universities in our range are Cairo at 224th, Cuzco at 197th and Golden Sun at 162nd."
"Which means our next competitors should be someone close to us in our rankings." Anita had done her homework. "Next, we'll be going against Cairo, Cuzco, or Golden Sun."
"And assuming we win, round 2 is going to be absurdly difficult," Petra affirmed her worries. "Chances are we'll be running into at least one university with a sub 50 rank in round 2, and if we make round 3…"
The horror, the horror, Gwen shivered.
Her teammates' expressions suggested they could hardly believe that Fudan could face the world's uppermost academic existences like MIT, Stanford, Oxford or London Imperial.
She suddenly felt the feeling of being a big fish in a small pond. Compared to cities like NY, London, Paris or Berlin, the rat-race in Shanghai was not dominated by Displacer Beasts.
With Marong's Message played out, the team fell into poor spirits, each realising that their bright futures concurrently cast long and sinister shadows, ones that may yet swallow them all.