Mid-October was the best time of year to visit Shanghai, for the superstructural Tower's hazy barrier kept the city cosy as its deciduous flora turned to fire.
At Guoding B1, above the autumn trees, Alesia and Gwen endlessly teased Gunther's iron-willed patience. After a while, Alesia grew thirsty; when she returned, Gunther had skillfully steered the conversation toward Surya, Gwen's grandfather.
"Tell Opa I love him, and that I'll be able to return in another year, two at most." Gwen said. "Thanks for looking after him, Gunther."
After Alesia poured herself and Gwen a glass of soda, the topic shifted to closer concerns.
"I've heard on the grapevine that you're likely facing off the South or Meso American institutions first." Gunther appeared entirely relaxed. "Fudan's low ranking may be a blessing yet. If you can defeat the rank 27th Kyoto, the less orthodox universities shouldn't be too much trouble. There's going to be one problem though."
"The lower-ranked university gets to pick the grounds, so there's a good chance you'll be travelling the Andes or Mexico City."
"Wow," Gwen gushed. "I would love that."
"Love what?" Gunther chuckled. "Do you have any idea how powerful Spirit Magic can be when used by Shamans on their home turf? The very mountain will turn against you if you're not careful."
"'Oh' indeed," Gunther continued. "Consult Walken. He's spent a few years here and there on the Mageocracy's behalf. What are you hoping to accomplish in the next three weeks?"
"Bilby's Hand from Alesia, and Walken's almost done with preparations for Planar Ally."
"An Ally? It's a risky spell- fantastic if you can manage it, but..."
"I think I'll manage," Gwen replied with confidence.
"Then the best of luck to you." Gunther nodded. "Don't force it. If the creature refuses to obey or make a deal, let it go. With your access to resources, it should be no trouble to try again when you've gained more mastery."
"No worries, and thank you for taking care of Alesia—"
"Who's taking care of WHO?!" Alesia shouted from the couch, ready for round two.
The LRM Device whined down.
All that was left was to train, spar, and study.
Ruxin wondered what he should do next.
He was bored, and therefore, he felt cheated.
The reason for his ambivalence was because his treasury was empty.
And yet, he possessed more "wealth" than in any moment of his five centuries of life. The predicament was that his "treasure" was now a string of human-numbers on a data slate.
"My Lord, the procurement of Crystals will take close to a decade, else we shall drive up the price of your desired elemental crystals recklessly," Marong had informed him. "While I stockpile the necessary jadeite and nephrite, rest assured that your earnings have been invested. It's split between The House of M's jade venture, primary industries and the Centurion program. Furthermore, I have taken the liberty of inviting you to sit on the Board. The Grey Faction has consented..."
Ruxin paced back and forth in the near-empty vault as he ruminated over Marong's report.
A week ago, as tit-for-tat for the Spirit Cores, the Calamity had delivered a proposal of such ruthless tyranny that even Ruxin felt bedazzled. What their young financier had proposed in a two-hundred-page document was something called commodity monopoly in conjunction with supply capture and superficial-constraint. As Kachin produced the best jadeite and nephrite bar none, she explained, they would set the classification of the precious mineral. Simultaneously, through its auction network, The House of M would hoard all higher-grade jade while weakening foreign markets with lower-tier stones sold at cost.
Then, they would trade "Kachin Jade" as a branded commodity by propagating the idea that New Zealand greenstone and Vietnamese serpent stone were inferior facsimiles. Accordingly, when Yangon's monopoly matured, the rarity of high and hyper-tier stones would fetch higher barter value for the crystals Ruxin desired. Furthermore, regulation capture could be enacted through feeding officials a slice of the profit- paid in jade- which would naturally ensure loyalty to the system established by the House of M.
All of which were concepts that escaped Ruxin's understanding of human economics.
That, and against the girl's knowledge, Ruxin double-dipped from her longterm investments in Tonglv, as well as the ever-swelling income from the Centurion program.
The result was far grander than Ruxin had anticipated. Rather than razing cities and demanding ransom, these humans would race one another to pile crystals into his treasury. Where he had expected to be fighting powerful beings, he now sat on his throne, reading the paperwork and waiting for his crystals to arrive. It was a most un-dragon-like activity, one that he had engineered.
He wondered if this was why his father slept all the time.
"Gwen Song…" Ruxin felt a troubling uncertainty. "Calamity…"
Once more, he 'owed' the girl, for their exchange had grown askew. As the girl said, she liked balanced accounts, and so did Ruxin. He would have to find something else to give her. Thankfully, he had a layabout brother to spare.
"I am bored," Ruxin confessed to the empty room. He needed what humans called a hobby. Maybe, he would tease Tika again; there's always sport in that.
Fifty kilometres from Shanghai, there existed a series of sandbar islands.
An old spell-testing ground, the islands existed just outside of the PLA superstructural Tower's coverage, forming a part of the Xima-Anshan archipelago, three hours travel by ship from Jinshan, Shanghai's southern-most metropolitan buildup.
The island was inhabited by friendly demi-humans who had long since adapted to living beside humanity, surviving by trading fish from the South China Sea. Though the Merman had a name for their home, human fishermen nonetheless labelled the rocky outcrop "Dawugui", meaning big turtle, while the bar of igneous rock was "Jifenjiao" or chicken-shit reef.
Though the Mermen protested the name; it was to no avail. Shanghai's Secretariat had no love for demi-humans from "Turd Island".
So it was that the Jifen-folk gathered at the turtle's most generous "turd" to witness a plot of human Mages poking at the fabric of reality with a short-stick.
"Here-ya-go!" A skinny female gave out cans of SPAM to the small Mermen children, watching with wide-eyed wonder as they retreated with their oiled palms back to their parents.
"You can speak our language?" Elder Lei-bup was surprised because the humans never spoke the Mermen's accented, gibbering tongue, a language as effective in water as it was on land.
"I suppose." The female appeared thrilled. Behind her, two senior Mages made Lei-bup nervous.
"What are you doing here?" Lei-bup demanded, feeling more confident that this human was reasonable. The female had fur the colour of charcoal, and her complexion was like the grubs one found in rotting logs. Watching her spindly limbs, Lei-bup felt unimpressed.
"We're working on a summoning, and my instructors said that this was a spell-testing ground…" the girl grinned. "Look, I'll minimise the damage, and compensate you for the temporary land lease, is there anything you need?"
In his fishy guts, Lei-bup sensed that a great opportunity had arrived.
"One hundred kilos of brown rice!" he boasted. "… and ten HDMs!"
"Done!" The gullible female struck out a hand, then passed over a currency card.
"Gurrp!" Lei-bup shook the fleshy appendage, gifting the human a handful of his thickest secretions.
"Gwen, what are you doing?" Walken watched his student traffic in trade with the local rabble.
"I am trying out the Ioun Stone." The girl returned to her place beside the two Magisters. Apart from Wen and Walken, there were also observers from both the PLA and the Pudong Towers. Thankfully, de Botton was uninvited, thanks to their fiasco, she had been ordered to stay within the Tower's range.
Instead, he focused on the spell he had spent the last week cramming into his student's head.
Summon Planar Ally (Variant)
Casting Time: 220 Major, 22 Minor Incantation, Tier 6 Summoning Mandala
Components: Somatic, Verbal, Glyph, Enchanter tier 6
A variation modified by Magister Eric Walken of Sydney. As with Planar Ally, the spell opens a portal into an Elemental Plane activated by the caster's Affinity via the accompanying Mandala. Upon completion, a being of a variable tier will manifest. Once conjured, negotiation with said being shall take place. The maximum time allotment is dependent on the expertise of the accompanying Enchanter inscribing the Glyph. Magister Walken's variation allows for higher tiers of control than the original. For additional theoretical framework, please consult the documentation for Schliersberg's Planar Ally.
To provide context for the spell, he had extolled the work of Magister Derik Schliersberg, a renowned summoner. Schliersberg's family attended the region of the Schliersee Mountains, now a Green Zone of immense agricultural value. In his youth, as a passionate anthropologist, Schliersberg had travelled the known world, collating data on cultures that worshipped primal Spirits and Elemental Gods. In 1937, he finalised the first Spellcraft variation of Planar Ally, allowing Western Mages with no history of Spiritual worship to entrap and commune with Elemental beings. Since the spell's conception, notable episodes in the Pan-European conflict, the Sino Conflict, the Sino-American War over Hawaii and the Indochina Conflict had elevated its esteem. When Magister Schliersberg reached the end of his life in 1984, a posthumous title of Meister was granted.
Walken's student had devoured the spell's history with keen interest, though one caveat remained. As a part of the summoning ritual, the Conjurer was required to visualise the type of beings they desired to call. If a Conjurer served the Vatican, then something with white wings was almost assured. If one's shamanistic faith worshipped one-eyed fire Gods, then that's what one got.
"Your Kurchatov's pentagram is flawed," Wen snapped at Petra, waking Walken from his work. "Pay attention to the Glyph, not to your cousin's dilly-dally with the local fish."
Walken had to admit that when Wen was at work, she was impressive. There was a commitment and dedication there that few people could attain even if they had the talent and the imagination.
His job, conversely, was etching the Mandala with materials Gwen had acquired from Marong and the House of M. For materials, they had spared no expense. Hyper-tier materials from the ichor of an Evil-Eye, mithril from Dwarven Bavaria and palladium from Ethiopia had all been paid for by his student's seemingly endless capacity to generate wealth. Additionally, he had instructed Wen to implement a purge function.
For both himself and Wen, as well as other invested parties, the choice of Planar Ally was two-fold. First, they were interested to know what exactly existed in the Void and what someone of her reputation could call forth. Secondly, a Planar Ally was a force-multiplier against opponents that are arguably far more skilful, proficient, powerful and learned than herself.
"Gwen, we're ready." Walken straightened his back with an audible groan. "There's got to be a better way than lying on a levitation platform. I don't remember it being this hard." `
The finished Mandala was enormous. It was etched out on the beaten sandstone, a little larger than the size of a tennis court. For his student, Walken had spared none of her expense.
"Petra!" Wen called out. "Inject the mana crystals!"
From higher up on the hill, Petra materialised a crate of high-density mana crystals and placed them into a ring of glyphs leading away from the actual Glyph-structure. Walken watched as a line of raw mana turned the array a brilliant silver.
"The re-summoning Mandala is much simpler," he assured his student. "Inscribing it will raise your proficiency with Enchantment as well."
"Great." His student took a deep breath. "What should I expect?"
"You're Kilroy's student." Walken's eyes twinkled. "Surprise me?"
"Alright." Gwen stepped into the portion of the circle made for her protection. "Prepare to be surprised."
"It's coming!" Wen called out to Walken as the Mandala lit up like a torch. "What do you think she'll summon?"
"Something draconic, I bet." Walken could feel his heart pounding in anticipation.
Within the summoning chamber, a lightning-flare burst over the rune-etched landscape, materialising into a majestic shape.
"It's draconic!" Walken shouted over the crackling thunder.
"Beautiful!" Wen was likewise impressed. "It looks at least tier 10, maybe higher."
The light faded, first revealing a crowned ridge of ivory and bone, followed by a long, serpentine neck armoured with interlocking plates. At its base, a powerful chest linking two enormous bat-wings joined a robust torso held up by tree-trunk legs armoured in azure, ending with a spiked tail.
"Eric," Wen remarked to the agape Walken. "Does that wyvern look familiar to you?"
Gwen felt a gut-tingling sense of foreshadowing when she pumped her conduits full of Essence and Lightning. According to her instructors, the space-time magic would tear into the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Lightning to bring forth a suitably robust, and most importantly, intelligent, creature, one capable of bargaining.
Instead, what materialised was a sight she had not expected to see for some time, one that was infeasible, considering her spell's objective.
With the hysterical electricity faded, Golos landed in the Summoning Mandala.
"…" The Wyvern stared at the girl summoner.
"… Yo." She waved. "Fancy seeing you again. Why are you here?"
"Hmmph!" Golos exhaled motes of lightning. "Ruxin says he is indebted to you, and therefore, I am indebted to you."
"And what debt is that?" She cocked her head.
"Suit yourself." Gwen respected the Wyvern's sulky silence, realising he may be referring to her returned 'favour'. Mayuree's brother had been very forthcoming in stating that their new landed neighbour had tasked him to enrich the north's resources. To ensure that the House of M did not suffer, she had thought up a ploy involving a Jade monopoly. In her old world, this was impossible due to the turmoil in Burma. In this world, with Ruxin as a backer, a few decades of De Beer style monopoly with the House of M at the helm should be manageable.
Gwen raised a hand. "What's your price?"
"To repay Ruxin."
"I don't think that's for me to decide," she replied. "Did Ruxin say how long your servitude should last? I mean, how the hell did you even get here?"
"Ruxin has his ways," Golos stated contemptuously. In the next moment, his gaze wandered. "Hmm, you have readied snacks? I could eat."
"Snacks?" Gwen turned to her right, following Golos' gaze. There, she saw Elder Lei-bup and a dozen Mermen warriors, shitting themselves while half-paralysed by the wave of dragon-fear radiating from Golos' body. "No. Those are not snacks. They're people. Golos. Not snacks."
"Hee, you cannot deny me!" Golo strode forward, then ran smack-bang into the wall of force. There was a moment of incredulous confusion before the Wyvern grew wrathful. "You dare ENSNARE me? I am no summoned wyrm!"
"And why not? You're literally in my summoning circle!" Gwen spat back at Golos, irked by the Wyvern's ego. Golos was going to be one useless ally if he couldn't even follow orders. "If Ruxin says you'll obey me, what's the problem?"
"Impudent!" Golos growled, then let loose a line of lightning from its jaws to dash against the barrier.
"You want to be in debt to Ruxin forever?!" Gwen fired back.
"Ruxin marked me so that I would come to you," Golos growled, its beady eyes malicious and cunning. "And so I have! Each time you call, I shall come to you, and no more! Hahaha!"
"Golos, you're as thick as a log!" Gwen raised her voice. "Go back and tell Ruxin to send me a properly trained dog!"
"ROAR!" Golos smashed itself against the barrier. "Enough! You are not the master of me!"
"Oh, is that how it is?" Gwen snapped her finger, calling for Caliban.
"SHAA!" Caliban was ready for more draconic adventures.
"FOOL!" the Wyvern howled, smothering the interior of the barrier with blue-white lightning. Its scales fulminated with retina-searing discharge. "I have grown! Never again shall your beast best me!"
The ground shook, but the barrier held. Dragon-fear rippled out like a concentric wave, setting Walken and Wen to activate their Shields. Above, Petra and their PLA and Pudong observers circulated magic to resist the mind-numbing, pants-soiling horror spread by a primordial predator that had hunted man since the age of sticks and stones. Elder Lei-bup frothed at the mouth.
"I think that thing's a tad above tier 11," Walken remarked, borrowing Draconic-Essence from his familiar. Besides him, Wen kept herself lucid through her Mineral mana, scarcely believing that Gwen was having a shouting match with a bus-sized drake.
"How is it possible that she knows such a being by name?" Wen demanded, bewildered by the sight of their student's passionate haggling. "And speaking in Draconic?"
"They met in Burma," Walken replied. "And Gwen's acquired a new Translation Stone from Alesia de Botton, one originally made for Henry Kilroy."
"Impressive," Wen muttered. "Does this drake desire HDMs? They are hoarders, are they not?"
"I think this one might have other things on its mind," Walken observed.
"How is she going to tame it then?"
"Not sure." Walken squinted against the light, his hand resting against the purging Glyph. "I am sure she'll figure something out."
Golos wasn't an actual dragon, but as a scion of the Yinglong, he'd always considered himself above his kin that crawled along the ground or swam in the sea. Though he saw the female as almost his equal, he had never dreamt of serving as her subordinate.
"Brother, I have a task for you. Go and aid my investment. Keep her safe."
Golos dared not show displeasure to his brother, but in front of this mewling girl, he would bare his fangs to his heart's content! How dare she! What had she done to capture Ruxin's favour? For his brother, a scion of their great father, to possess an interest in the girl! It was unfathomable that he, Golos, a princeling of Huangshan, was less useful than some whelp barely out of her egg.
And to trap him in a cage, no different to some common elemental! Threaten him with her black beast! Golos' tail twitched; his shame and anger boiled over, filling the air with the stink of ozone. "I have grown! Never again shall your beast best me!"
"Look, forget about Ruxin for a second, what do you want?" The female's tone softened. "HDMs? I'll give you thousands, tens of thousands. Gems? Precious metal? Do you want SPAM? I can ship it by the ton."
Looking around, Golos noticed that many human Mages were watching. If so, then the girl must be in an exhibition of some sort. Golos knew he wasn't smart like Ruxin, but he recognised leverage when he saw it.
"Hehe…" He slithered an enormous, arm-thick tongue from his grinning maw. What did he want? His nostrils flared. The girl's scent was delicious, possessed of something far older and purer than even his father. Unbidden, Golos felt himself drooling over the unsoiled Essence. If he could taste it, then he would grow more powerful yet. "First, I would like some seafood, then, I want…"
"No, and NO," his victim rebuffed his advance, her eyes grew offended. "Now you're dreaming, big guy."
"You'll have to trust that I'll be delicate." Golos turned on what Ruxin referred to as his unique charm. "You're strong. You'll survive."
"No means no." The girl flushed. Golos inhaled the pheromones falling off her like the fragrance of flowers. It was so thick and heavy that even for a being of Golos' magnitude, it was making his head spin.
"Last chance..." Golos leered, confident that the girl was sure to capitulate.
"You know what?" his victim hugged herself as her expression grew icy. "I know how to deal with rude bastards like you."
Indeed, Gwen knew how to deal with rebellious Familiars.
She was beside two instructors, a summoning circle and a creature in the bag- how could she not feel nostalgic?
"Eric! I am starting the second summon!" she called out to her instructor.
"What!? That's insane!" Walken called back. "It can't be done!"
"It can!" Wen's eyes gleamed, suddenly realising the girls' game. "Are you going to use a Void Beast to quash the Thunder Wyvern?"
"Preposterous!" Walken interrupted his colleague. "The barrier…"
"…Will hold." Wen's eyes were aflame with zeal. "Walken, I need to see this."
Walken stared into the researcher's semi-transparent, Mineral-tainted orbs. "Give me control of the termination Glyph."
Wen passed over her half of the Glyph.
Walken made the gesture to proceed.
"Petra!" Wen Messaged her apprentice.
When another cache worth a thousand HDMs entered the Mandala's circuits. A clamour of surprise broke out over the observers watching from a distance.
"Golos, if you don't want to be stuck with a building-sized Caliban, now's your chance. Quash your pride, then fight for me."
"Ha!" the Wyvern scoffed at her. "I shall destroy this thing you summon! You will lose everything, and then I shall return to Ruxin and inform him of your incompetence."
"Fine, have it your way." Gwen stepped back. Caliban joined its master in the protected summoning circle.
She began with the Major Incantations, her fingers drawing light-consuming Glyphs in the air as Void mana flooded her conduits. Thanks to her acquisition of the Blue Zircon, the initial hit of the Negative Energy felt blunted. Combined with her Essence, there was a significant increase in the efficacy of her Void-craft.
"... Yog-Sothoth! Key to the gate where the spheres conjoin! Lä! Master of the Thousand Young..."
According to Walken, to conjure an Elemental, she had to have ample knowledge of that which resided within the primordial energies of the quasi-realms. Golos had ruined her plans for a Coatl, but what of the Void? Who knew what the Void held? Caliban Delux? Her Void-beast didn't even have a physical form! If so, Gwen found herself with an unusual hypothesis. What if she could summon something that was fiction? What suited Caliban more than Lovecraft's twisted horrors? She had already drawn upon the author many times, whether to frighten Jun, or to shape her Elemental Swarm, albeit in that instance, she got lamprey-leeches, not goats, but still, it had worked.
"... Lä! Shub-Niggurath! Lä! Master of the woods that wend! I conjure thee! Planar Ally!"
As for Golos, Gwen had a pretty good idea what the Wyvern wanted, and there was no way in hell she was going to give that up. Who the hell did Golos think he was? A Demi-God sovereign of three frontiers? Not even a dinner-date? The guy can't even polymorph properly.
She licked her drying lips.
Soon, she would know whether her will shaped the Void, or whether it had a will of its own - either way, the stupendously arrogant Golos would bend the knee.