The United States of America.
Though the match was set in Cuzco, it was the elephant in the room that Gwen wished to address. In this world where Russia was principally Black Zones, and China trafficked in dragons, could the US remain a global hegemon?
To find answers, she decided to trawl the bookshops, hoping to pick up a Lonely Planet or a Frommer's. Her knowledge of the States, assuming the United States existed in the form she knew, was woefully insufficient. As a Frontier bumpkin, her education provided no information on the American continents, and Henry had never prioritised the region in his lessons.
At Xinhua, the state-owned bookshop, she accosted a clerk about her enquiry. After becoming book-wrecked on an island of hypercritical propaganda, they arrived at the children's section.
"Perhaps you could try Fudan's library?" The clerk hid a smirk. "I've never heard of a traveller's guide. For a thrilling read, I do have some Dungeoneering autobiographies if you're interested."
In contrary to the clerk's oblivious advice, Gwen desired a lite account of American history, its customs and its people. She didn't need a four-hundred-page treaty on the "Post-War Impacts of US Intervention during the Sino Crisis, Volume II, The Journal of Asia-Pacific History, PRC Press, 1998" or "The Capitalist Incubi, by Lee Wang Suu."
Instead, she picked up "The Illustrated History of America".
"This will do, cheers." She smiled attractively. "May I have a browse?"
"Absolutely." The clerk beamed. "Take your time."
She took to a couch, then spread the book against her thighs. To her delight, it was relatively comprehensive. To her chagrin, the publisher was the National People's Press.
After the title page, she found a map of North America, just as she recollected. At its northernmost edge lay the Canadian border; opposite, at the southernmost tip was Meso-Amerca. Outside the chart, floating like two dislocated islands, were Alaska and Hawaii.
"The United States of America consist of the East and West Coasts. It is a nation of capitalists who built their homes on the backs of the proletariat."
Stunned, she checked the back page of the hardcover.
"Suitable for Ages 3 - 11."
"The United States brought many things to the world: The Automobile. The Lumen Caster. The Ether Engine. The Mobile Message Device. Data Slates. It remains the global seat of entrepreneurship and free-market capitalism."
The accompanying image was low-key 90's Reader's Digest. It held a collage of disembodied faces such as Jonathan Gilt, Elric Edison, Henrik Kaiser, Henry Ford and George Eastman. Each of the inventors hovered next to their inventions: the Ether Engine, the mana-relay, the freight-ship, the personal automobile, and the lumen-recorder.
She turned the page.
"The USA began as thirteen colonies of pilgrims who escaped England's persecution. They set up their new home in a continent called the New World, inhabited by the Native Americans."
There was a picture of surprised Native Americans staring at a fleet of ships. Labels like the Cherokee, the Sioux, the Apache were attached to painted faces wearing feathered headdresses.
"Though the pilgrims escaped the greed of their King, they continued the colonial greed of the Mageocracy. They chased away the Native People with their faith-magic, and took the fertile earth as their own."
The accompanying image showed Pilgrims with bibles held high, calling upon spells of fire and light to hammer at the defenceless natives.
"A great plague, brought by the Pilgrims, soon ravaged the Native population."
"Wow." The gruesome vision of carrion was impressive; it was as if the state-sanctioned artist had been there. She turned the page.
"As the colonies grew into cities, they wanted all the wealth of the New World for themselves, so they rebelled against England with the help of France."
The next page was a fantastic double-page of total war, titled "They fought; many died". The image had English Red-coat soldiers fleeing from spellbook-wielding Americans chasing them into the ocean. In the distance, French frigates set English ships ablaze with Fireballs.
"No longer subject to the Mageocracy's Laws, the Americans colonists enslaved the Native workers. Dissatisfied with one race, they enslaved the working people of Meso America. When the people perished, they travelled across the ocean to enslaved more of the proletariat."
An image of sad-looking black and brown people crowded like sardines in ships, lead by a Caucasian captain in blue and red, spoke loudly of the plight of the Pan-African proletariat. Were the matter not so morbid, Gwen would have laughed out loud at the anachronism.
"Then, a civil war broke out."
There was no explanation for the war. The double-spread, however, showed religiously attired Confederate soldiers in dusters, carrying wands as tall as themselves, backed by spell-book wielding Mages. They fought against the navy Union army; only the Unionists had slaves fighting on their side, curiously without magical implements.
"The Union united America."
She saw a chiselled Abraham Lincoln with Renaissance proportions, raising a flag atop a hill of corpses.
"The American President was assassinated by a prole, a non-magical dissident."
The image, sickeningly, showed old Abe falling from the box of a theatre, while behind him, a white man held a wand in one hand. Below, women screamed, and other men pointed their wands upwards.
There's a lot of magical wands, Gwen gulped. She had only seen this many wands in one place while in Singapore.
"Then a long peace."
The next page consisted of rebuilding, containing fair-skinned blonde women holding bountiful harvests of wheat and corn, while women of colour were depicted with bent-backs in cotton fields.
The next few pages progressed rapidly.
"The unending wars in Europe brought millions of people to America."
"America sold itself as the land of invention and enterprise. The American Dream was the idea that anyone, even NoMs, could find happiness in the New World."
"Instead, workers became exploited by America's great inventors. Oligarchs like Jonathan Gilt and Henry Ford used government regulations to build personal empires of continent-spanning wealth. A few men grew rich. A million men and women died."
The colour palette, Gwen realised, was growing increasingly dark.
"The proletariat wanted to unionise. The workers cried out for socialism."
The next image had a red star in the sky, shedding light on the faces of workers whose profiles were filthy from mining mana crystals.
"The peaceful revolution failed. The Oligarchs had become too powerful. The government represented only the interests of the wealthy, and the labourers had become too dumb and deaf to know their plight."
Depressingly, the last page was of soaring cities in white and neon, below which were the limp bodies of workers toiling in the dark of the factories.
"Who will speak for the silenced?"
That was the final page, accompanied by an artistic silhouette of Mao's side profile.
"Holy shit." Gwen breathed out. That was a heavy as all hell picture book. Who the hell published this crap for kids?
"I brought you some tea." The clerk returned. "Would you like to purchase the book?"
"Yes, I think I will." She sipped the lukewarm water. "Thank you."
At the Handan Campus, Gwen looked about her fellow students. Fudan had plenty of Korean, Japanese and European expatriates, but she had never seen anyone from the American continents.
Near the gate, after a quick flirt with a few reporters who wanted to know about their plans for South America, she Messaged the Dean.
"Why?" Luo demanded, suddenly suspicious. "Need I remind you that Hawaii belongs to a sovereign nation? There'll be an uproar! A continental war!"
After calming the Dean, she explained that she wanted the knowledge to avoid stepping on toes.
"..." There was an uncomfortable silence. "Right. Talk to James. I'll let him know you're coming."
A quarter of an hour later, she found James Ma at the Social Studies quadrangle.
The NoM professor's private study was quaint and quiet compared to the generous laboratories of Fudan's resident Magisters.
"Sir." She bowed. Though she and Ma were now colleagues, she wanted to maintain a cordial student-professor relationship while at Fudan. "I would like to know about the Americas for my upcoming visit to the continent."
"Ah yes, the Dean said as much." Ma pulled out a chair for his student. "You have my gratitude for looking after Alan. He has been very much traumatised by Magus de Botton's visit."
"It was the least I could do." Gwen inclined her head, tucking her hair behind one ear.
"As it were, I possess a few books on South American History, particularly on the rise of Tawantinsuyu, the Inca Empire." Ma pulled out several volumes from his bookshelf. "Do not misplace them."
"Thank you, sir." She stowed the texts in her ring.
"Just as well, since you're here, I'll answer any questions you might have. What do you want to know?"
"Politics and history of America; what to expect."
"North America, I hope, I know only as much about Cuzco as those books will tell you."
"That would be lovely. Hawaii is our first stop."
Ma retrieved a world-map from behind him, then opened the thick, note-bound volume until it reached North America.
"As with all history, context is everything." Ma paused to collect his thoughts. "To begin at the beginning, you must be aware that before the Beast Tide, our globe was a quieter place. The Mermen Kingdoms posed no threat to our shipping lanes. Magical beings, who had always existed, were largely dormant. Conversely, Human Spellcraft existed in its infancy. Men without magic were the standard. Mages were rare individuals, even if they occupied critical social niches, forming the upper political strata."
"Yes, I know."
"Good. America was, of course, a colony of the Imperial Britannic Mageocracy - not to be confused with the Commonwealth Mageocracy of today. During this colonial golden age, there was a tumultuous event that happened in Europe. Can you guess?"
"Oui! The French Revolution?"
"Yes. Well done." Ma seemed surprised. "Indeed, there was a revolution against the rule of Mages. Because NoMs so grossly outnumbered magic-users in Europe, the disparity culminated in the fall of the French Monarchy, ending with the execution of the French King and his family by NoM partisans. In response to dissent across the European continent, King George the Third declared the Equal Rights Concession in 1799. The law gave the right to life, liberty, property and employment to all non-Mage citizens. In 1801, the law became common."
Gwen nodded. She knew this, though not in so much detail.
"Myopically, the new rights did not apply to the Empire's Frontier citizens. The thirteen colonies thus declared independence from the Mageocracy in 1813, aided by the opportunistic French. After that, many long-suffering Europeans saw America as an opportunity to begin life anew in the New World. The Mages who left travelled via French and English frigates. NoMs travelled on desperate coffin ships."
"The next few decades saw an epoch of slavery, and after that, the Civil War. Internationally, however, until the late 1890s, the US remained dormant, quietly trading its surplus of food and magical materials. When the Spellcraft Revolution transpired between 1890 and 1910, the States tripled its production and trade capabilities. During this time, the USA exploded with entrepreneurship, lead by one Jonathan Gilt."
"Who is Jonathan Gilt?"
"An inventor, a philosopher, and a profiteer. Bit of an enigma, to be honest. He had no interest in government, thank Mao, though his invention, the Ether Engine, enabled a revolution in personal and public transportation, and he had many disciples. One of his protégés, Henry Ford, became the most influential Industrialist in the world. You could say that he even had a hand in the creation of Crystal Currency. Gilt was intensely opposed to any socialist intervention in the works of his fellow Industrialists. He famously stated that each man must live according to his means and that to provide for your fellow man is dishonest. He believed that humans were made unequal; therefore, the natural state of society was inequality. Curiously, he wasn't a warmonger. He believed that Man's purpose is to strive for rational progress. He extolled the virtue of the greatest profit for the greatest many; that the free market was democracy distilled."
Jonathan Gilt, Gwen whistled, committing the name to memory.
"Don't let the Party officials hear that." Ma laughed drily. "We're opposed to the Gilts and the Fords, at least officially. Now, to answer your question. In the 1920s, after the Great War against the Necromancers ended, America and its industries emerged the ultimate victor. You see, during the war, all the great names in Europe sent at least one branch family to the States to preserve the bloodline. In many cases, these scions never returned, having found success abroad while their siblings bled in the trenches. Like their predecessors, these new Mages broke free from the tradition thanks to the New World."
"Through to the 1930s, the restoration of Europe was another boon for the USA, showering its twin-coasts with skilled immigrants it unconditionally absorbed into its fold. The entrepreneurs who built its cities grew enormously wealthy during this time, riding on cheap labour and widespread exploitation of the starry-eyed proletariat."
"There was no progressive movement? No Great Depression? No Franklin D. Roosevelt?"
"Was he an Industrialist?" Her professor paused to collect his thoughts.
"Ah-" Gwen knew now where history had definitively diverged. How could there be a Great Depression without a stock market to crash? How could there be an economic crisis when currency grew in caves and on the plains? "I was confused. Please continue. What happened in the 1940s?"
"The 1940s saw the rise of two ideologies across Europe and Asia. Fascist-Imperialism and Communism. Conversely, the USA extolled the virtues of unfettered capitalism. When the USA joined the global conflict as a peace-keeper, it profited greatly on the Western Front, once again receiving an enormous wave of desperate and talented migrants."
"But it suffered against the Japanese in the Sino War. When the generals resorted to a costly war of attrition, the States infamously utilised the world's first Strategic-Class Spell of Mass-Destruction on Japanese soil, citing the preservation of human life and resource. After that, the USA secured its position as the world's foremost international power, at least until the Beast Tide."
"While reigning as a global hegemon, the US continued to garner power, drunk on the profits of human conflict." Ma scoffed. "The Pan-Pacific battle over Hawaii. The Meso-American Concession. The Massacre at Panama Canal. The Columbian Insurgency. American Banana Co. Its support of Japan and South Korea. Territorial disputes with the Mageocracy. Interventions in the Middle East on behalf of the Israelis. The persistent destabilisation of South America from the 1920s until 1971. It had a finger in every pot of rice."
"Finally, when the Tide occurred in 71, the USA suffered its first major set back."
Gwen accounted for the timeline in her head while Ma traced a finger around the entirety of the US continental map.
"After the Great Restoration, only the East and West Coast endured," Ma declared. "On the Pacific Coast, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego remained firmly entrenched under human dominion. On the Atlantic Coast, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington stemmed the Tide."
Ma drew a line across the middle with his finger.
"After the Reclamation, the damage remains. From Kootenai to Twin Falls - Orange Zone. From Reno to Black Rock - Black Zone. The entire Mississippi Delta - Black and Purple Zones. Of course, there exist Orange Zone enclaves like Oklahoma and New Orleans that thrived despite the uptick in Demi-humans and Magical Beasts. But, as with our fight against the Undead, much of Amerca's Frontiers remain generation-long struggles. The Mageocracy says that America may never be great again. The reasons are many. New Tenochtitlan is on the rise; the Native American Tribes are returning to their Spirit Lands; the Mageocracy is regaining its foothold. The rest of the world is no longer its Wild West."
"Still." Ma shrugged. "The USA remains absurdly wealthy. It may lack the history of China and Europe, but its primary industries are unrivalled. Likewise, I am sorry to say that they have no equal in Magi-tech."
"So, how wealthy are the States? Compared to say, China?"
Ma gave her an expectant look. "If you believe the tales, they tell us that every American Mage has a block of land to call his own and that even NoMs can own a two-bedroom house and an automobile."
"Ooo-" Gwen cooed. The American Dream, the flames may flicker, but it remains an immutable beacon. Even with dragons, the New World was a land of opportunities!
After a four-day media blitz, the team boarded a bus from Fudan and made for the superstructure at the heart of Shanghai.
The entrance, one of many, accessed an underground facility that processed the student's Multi-passes, after which an encircling tunnel led downwards. When finally the darkness cleared, the students found themselves travelling through a cavernous space lit-up to resemble the world outside.
A Geofront! Gwen plastered her face against the windowpane. A city-under-a-city!
She finally realised why the superstructure of the PLA Tower appeared so outlandish, like a distended, long-legged spider that brooded over a section of the city. As the surreal scene had established, the majority of its functional buildings remained buried underground.
"See that?" Petra pointed to a pool of light at the base of a pylon-like structure. From the cavern above, it stabbed into the earth like an obsidian sword. "That's the ley-line under Shanghai."
"Cool!" Gwen felt her understanding of Mage Towers renewed. Seeing was believing; though she had always known about ley-lines, Gwen had never expected to see one drawing mana from the earth in real-time.
At the end of the winding road, their coach was halted by NoM soldiers carrying powered shock-wands, dressed in the olive fatigue of the PLA. A Diviner ran a diagnostic device across the students as they disembarked to proceed on foot into the Tower's atrium.
From the front gate, the Tower appeared as an enormous stalactite connecting the ceiling and the central platform, making one wonder as to how the PLA Tower meant to translocate itself in an emergency. At the main entrance, a set of scissored barriers ten-meters in height and adorned at the centre by a glowing red star swallowed the visitors.
Within, the most salient sight in the enormous lobby was a benevolent statue of Mao Zedong. The Great Leader had one hand rested just behind his back, while the other waved in front of his body. His face was life-like, gazing down at the students while generously wrapped in a double-breasted commander's duster.
"We should bow." Walken's voice came through the communal Message earlier enabled by Mayuree. "There's a lot of guards watching us."
The group collectively capitulated, though some more purposefully than others.
Behind the statue was the service desk, a semi-circle of clerks was piled three-deep behind a marble counter hundreds of meters long.
There, the students presented their Multi-pass, logged their biometric-mana signatures, then followed a militant looking officer toward yet another set of too-tall double doors.
"Where are our proctors?" Gwen intoned as they passed the threshold.
"Patience." Walken carried on ahead. "The team was originally in Abu Dhabi. They will route through New Delphi, Lhasa, Chendu, and finally through to Shanghai. Once Yangon begins operation, European access to Indochina should be easier."
True to Walken's words, at the end of the stark concrete corridor was a group of Europeans looking distinctly out of place.
"Eric!" the leader called out, his voice booming across the cubist ceiling. "Thank God you're here. I was beginning to wonder if they had detained us, hahaha…"
A collective murmur of relief escaped from the examiners' lips. They were each powerful Magisters and Mages in their own right, but now they were stuck in the belly of the red beast.
"You're a household name, are you?" Gwen was impressed yet again.
"You jest," her instructor intoned modestly before leaving her side. Facing the newcomers, Walken opened his arms. "Auberon! My Baron of Shenfield! You're a sight for sore eyes!"
The contestants watched as the two men fiercely embraced, with "Auberon" planting a Sopranos hug-and-pat around Walken's shoulders.
"My God." Auberon pulled himself away. "Walken, when you disappeared, I feared for the worst. You know, I had imagined that our German friend had you gagged in a dungeon somewhere!"
"Ha! I am afraid to disappoint you." Walken shook his head. "I am safe, thanks to her."
"Ah." The Baron of Shenfield turned his studied gaze toward Gwen, who hastily curtsied. "The fabled liberator of Yangon? You gave von Schlabrendorff quite the scare, or so I've heard. Are you going to give me a run of the troubles as well, young lady? The Spaniards couldn't hold onto Cuzco for long, but maybe you..."
"Nothing of the sort, sir," Gwen simpered. There was nothing wrong with ingratiating oneself with the source of one's CCs.
Auberon laughed, then formally introduced himself as Baron Lucas of Shenfield. On the surface, their new Chief Proctor was the talkative type. With a head of pale blonde, he appeared younger than his professed age of five decades. Like a few of his peers, the Baron of Shenfield possessed the typical English ridge-line nose, paired with curly hair, fair complexion and grey-green eyes.
Behind him, he introduced his fellow proctors, a multi-national team of examiners assigned by the various universities.
"Magisters," the groups' round-robin greetings were disrupted by the PLA Magus who had escorted them, keeping a low conversation with Bai. "It's time."
The groups' attention turned toward the dais.
Upon the platform, Gwen spied the most complex Mandala she had ever seen. What had been inscribed into the baseplate of the superstructural Teleportation Circle stood at the apex of practical Spellcraft. Even a tiny corner of the elaborate setup was far beyond her ken, and when it fired up, the thrum of mana within the Mandala could be felt in their bones.
"Wow," Petra mumbled, taking notes with her eyes. "Just wow."
The proctors lead the way, stepping onto the dais before taking their place in the outer perimeter. As for the students, Walken invited them up one by one so that they stood at the circle's centre.
"Less spatial turbulence in the middle," Walken explained. "None of you wants to paint the floor in Honolulu, I imagine."
"I can't believe this is happening!" Eunae trembled as she held Anita's equally sweaty hand. "I am in a long-range teleportation circle. I am going to the other side of the world!"
"I am all tingly…" Jiro shook with excitement. "Please be gentle, Teleportation Circle."
"Other than Burma, I've never been outside of China," Rene confessed. "Can someone hold my hand..."
Nervous chuckles answered the Magma Mage. Gwen offered to hold Rene's hand. Mayuree and Eunae soon joined her.
"Injecting Mana," came a voice from above.
"Coolants at maximum."
"Activating the superstructural Mandala."
"Destination in conference... Confirmed."
Below, the PLA Magus saluted. "Fudan. Make us proud."
Bai snapped back a crisp salute. "We shall return victorious!"
Blazing swirls of silvery-Conjuration enveloped the stage.
Fudan was away.