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A note from Wutosama

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Stepping from the FDX Carolina after seven days of swaying at sea, the ground beneath the student's feet turned as they ambled onto the freight dock.

From the deck, they were soon joined by the proctors. Exchanging a few polite words, the group then crossed customs before travelling coach into Lima's cultural centre.

Unlike the Cuzco of Gwen's academic volumes, remnants of Castillian legacy remained in the coastal city. When she audibly questioned why so much of the trade-city retained its colonial influence, it was a voice from the front who answered the inquisitive vice-captain.

"Lima was our last domain," their driver struck up a conversation.

"Domain?"

"Yeah, of us Spaniards."

She implored the driver to continue.

"... and because we have Spanish blood, the Incas don't think very highly of us," their chauffeur snorted. "In Cuzco; those snobs wouldn't give us the time of day."

Their assigned guide, visibly more Spanish than native, grumbled bitterly.

Ah, Gwen nodded at their driver's disdain. Trouble in paradise, that was more like it. Her anthropological records were far too kind in regards to the Inca's pristine cultural roots. As always, academia was a far cry from the vox populi.

"The real Inca; and I mean those born in Cuzco under the auspice of Inti…" their driver continued. "…they think that folks from Lima only go to Cuzco to steal and grovel. Sometimes I wonder if things could be better if we had remained an independent city, or if we never allowed the crown to be chased out..."

From behind the driver's seat, Gwen could see that much of Lima resembled Barcelona, with broad, tree-strewn avenues in stone. True to the driver's sentiments, its boulevards retained a Catalan-Gothic flavour.

"Thankfully, we're mostly left alone down here at the coast." The driver said. "The sun shines from Cuzco, but Lima is in the shade, eh? All that gold they've got up there, and mountains of Crystals! All they do is pile it up in that Temple of theirs and praise the sun. But we're citizens of the Empire too, aren't we? Lima needs new roads, new ports, new schools! We're the artery that connects Cuzco to the outside world!"

Perhaps it was because the girl had shaken his hand and asked for his name, or maybe it was exciting to have a Mage eating his words- the man's disclosure came on like a torrent.

So, strife does exist in the Empire, Gwen deduced. She could see it too.
It was only when their bus entered the central business district that the attires of the citizenry began to take on a distinct, local air. One by one, workwear turned into colourful caps; shawls stitched with chequered patters, long full body tunics, and leather sandals.

"Why do some people have similar mantles?"

"That's easy." The driver said as he pulled into the hotel's bay. "The squares on the mantle indicate their position and rank in their Suyu. Gold-Red-Blue-Green-Teal-Earth-Grey. The closer to red, the higher up they are. If you see someone with a gold mantle, they're a part of the royals. Grey means they are criminals."

He pointed to a square on his uniform. "Me? I am a Teal. A skilled labourer."

"Right, gotcha." Gwen thanked their accommodating NoM driver before producing an HDM. "Enrico, Can I gift you with this?"

"I won't say no, Miss Gwen." The man gulped. "Inti's blessing!"

Behind Gwen, Auberon, the Baron of Shenfield, turned to his old classmate with an enquiry. "She does that a lot?"

"All the time," Walken said. "Queer, hmm? Maybe it's her Frontier upbringing. She's got a knack for dealing with NoMs."

"You think an NoM would resist an Omni-mage?"

"Do you think you can get your NoMs to speak to you candidly?"

"Hee..."

Auberon Lucas watched Walken's prize stretch her pliant figure in a most unladylike manner. More and more, his alumnus' protégé was tickling his interest.

"Right!" in the lobby of the impressive colonial hotel, Fudan's instructor addressed his team. "We're up at 0400 sharp tomorrow for breakfast and final checks. At 0500, we take the ISTC to Cuzco. After that, we have been invited to attend the sunrise. There, you will meet with your opponents from Cuzco National University. Remember, Inti Yupanqui-Cápac is both heir and the future head of the Cult, handle with care."

"Yessir!" the team replied.

"Remember that as with the PLA Tower, Cuzco is independent. Not all of your Contingency Rings may function. I will check with Tower Master Yupanqui before we proceed with the quest. When you duel, shield-break only."

"Yessir!"

"Petra?"

"I am stocked up, sir."

"Gwen?"

"Nothing but Lightning!"

"Good." Walken turned to face the lobby. "This may be the last two days you'll remain in civilisation for the foreseeable future. Treasure it!"

True to Walken's proposed itinerary, the team arrived at the ISTC at the crack of dawn. An hour later, Fudan's team was treading on the sacred soil of Cuzco; the navel of the world, the centre of the Incan Empire.

As with Burma, an entourage awaited the students. This time, their hosts consisted of a dozen smiling men in conical flapper-hats, colourful tunics and scarlet shoulder-shawls, bowing their heads. After handshakes and greetings, the congregation made way for a trio of women, who introduced themselves as the Aclla Cuna.

"Sacred women," Gwen translated for the others, marvelling at the linguistic prowess of her new Ioun Stone. "Virgins of the Sun."

"Please follow us to the Temple," one of the girls implored amiably. Unlike the ceremoniously adorned men, the girls wore white tunics of fine linen, a sunburst-patterned shawl and llama-skin shoes.

Gwen enviously scrutinised their perfect, caramel skin.

"Cute…" Jiro followed without complaint.

The others formed a procession line. Unlike the enthralled Jiro, his companions arranged themselves in order of height so that Eunae and Lulan wouldn't have their first sight of Cuzco impeded.

Outside Cuzco's Tower, the still-dark city expanded from horizon to horizon, a tide of chalk-washed buildings with terracotta roofs. Unlike the "blocks" favoured by the developed nations, the city offered a unique take on urbanism, forming fissured avenues encircling administrative and religious centres.

To the city's north, the mighty fortress of Sacsahuamán cast its golden glow; its walls etched with lustrous wards and arcane symbols. From the hilly vantage, the puma-shaped city pulsed with the royal fortress at its head, and Coricancha at its heart. The team wondered at the breath-taking sight of seeing a foreign city whose ley-lines were imprinted in golden circles glowering with thrumming mana. Fed by capillaries of magic, Cuzco appeared as though it were alive.

Their destination, Coricancha, sat atop another hill, at the end of an elongated plaza shaped like a "T".

"And I thought our city used a lot of gold…" Mayuree inhaled Cuzco's rarified air. As a precaution, the students had imbibed potions for altitude sickness. Nonetheless, lightheadedness and mild nausea assailed those whose whole lives had been spent at sea-level.

Gwen meanwhile, struck up a conversation with the priestesses. First praising their elegance, their clothes, then steering the conversation toward the city itself, playing the ignorant yokel. In no time at all, the girls were giggling as though old friends.

"Where are the slums?" Gwen remarked. Even in the dim light, the urban silhouette was incredibly consistent. In Shanghai, she explained, it was self-evident where the Mage's city ceased, and the NoM's districts began.

"Cuzco doesn't discriminate," the priestess candidate, Lira, proudly proclaimed. "We don't have areas for the poor."

"Oh? How so?"

"All of the city's citizens are cared for by the Sapa," the Aclla Cuna replied with reverence. "So long as they or their families contribute, they won't starve, and they will always have a bed and a roof over their heads."

"And if they don't contribute?" Gwen arched a brow. Was modern-day Cuzco a socialist-theocracy like Bhutan? Or was it a cult of personality in the style of Dear Leader?

"Why would they not?" The girl furrowed her brows. "The city belongs to all of us. Inti shines on all equally, why should they not reciprocate? Who would wish to live in the darkness?"

Gwen caught Richard smiling and showed her cousin the white of her eyes.

"You're right." She grinned back amicably. "What a wonderful city. Bless Inti!"

"Bless Inti!" the girl chirped.

"Do you mind if I ask some more questions?"

"Ask me anything!" The girls' eyes glinted. "I am the top-ranking student at the temple! What would you like to know?"

"How about…" Gwen made sure her friends were listening. "How about some valorous tales of your darling prince?"

0610.

Sunrise.

Hymns praising the risen sun rose to a crescendo, filling the golden air with the music of the spheres.

"How ecclesiastical," Richard relayed through a silent Message. "I know they're using mostly wind instruments, but there's a choir and everything. I am getting flashbacks of Sunday assembly at Prince's."

"Must be a post-colonial thing," Gwen returned as she looked about the temple. Indeed, as Richard had stated, they may as well be in an Incan variation of the Barcelona Cathedral. Above, where the sun had struck the central structure's arched dome, an incredible array of amber quartz formed an art-deco sun, bathing the faithful in awe.

The high priest, dressed in the garb of Inti with three condor feathers in a golden headband, a metallic shawl and a waist-skirt etched with saffron threads, lead the congregation in prayer.

When the music ebbed, an incense-smeared llama dressed in gold and scarlet threads made its way to the centre of the dais.

Oh no, Gwen winced.

"I had expected a nubile virgin," Richard reminded her of Cuzco's past. That a llama was now a substitute spoke of the Cult's modernity. "Maybe it's a maiden llama?"

Without complaint, the animal knelt.

"Inti! Teach us!" The priest rose both hands toward the heavens. "Take this offering from your people!"

The congregation began to chant.

A disrobed young man joined the central dais. He was naked from the waist up and rouged in gold, reminding Gwen of a Grecian statue. As his footfalls filled the temple's vacant spaces with thudding echoes, she thought of Gunther.

So that's "Dear Prince", Gwen studied the lone figure as he approached the llama with a gleaming, golden blade. In one stroke, the Radiant Mage sunk the dagger into the creature's heart. The llama knelt, then the high priest collected the heart-blood in a jewelled goblet.

Oh no. Gwen realised where this was going.

"We invite our guests to partake in the gift of Inti," the priest declared.

Slick with gore from his square chest to chiselled abdominals, Inti raised the cup, then approached Fudan's assembly. From the left side of the aisle, the Cuzco team rose to their feet.

"I, Bai Tei, accept your generosity." Bai stepped forward, bowed to Inti, then again toward the Sapa Inca seated under the glimmering mural.

Inti took a sip.
Gwen felt her skin crawl.

"The flesh of my God, from me to you, brother under the sun," Inti intoned.

Tei received the goblet, then drank.

"Good!" Inti slapped Tei on the shoulder.

He then passed the goblet down the line so that it was in the hand of his vice-captain, a girl with deep, obsidian eyes. She introduced herself as Tica, a noblewoman and heir to the seat of Antis.

From the cup's rim, Tica dyed her lips, painting both petals carmine, making even Gwen gulp. When she relayed the goblet, the Void Mage could taste the fecundity radiating from Tica's body.

A Plant Mage! She wrinkled her nose at the nostalgic fragrance.

At the goblet's base, their fingers touched.

A mote of something passed between them. Their eyes met.

"The flesh of Inti, from me to you, sister under the sun," Tica parroted.

"Sister." Gwen raised the goblet, then took a mouthful.

The briny-blood was pungent but full of life. As a scalding line of raw vitality, it travelled down her gullet, flushing her body pink.

"Oh…" Gwen gasped, realising she had let loose an indiscreet moan.

"Inti appears to agree with you." Tica's smiling eyes formed two half-moons. "May we converse during the luncheon?"

Gwen nodded, then passed the goblet to a caramel giant taller than Richard and twice the bulk by the name of "Tupaq".

TUPAC?! Gwen almost regurgitated her plasma-de-llama. She regarded the rapper extraordinaire but was disappointed when the man spoke in Quechua.

The ritual continued.

Thanks to Mayuree running a discrete variation of Detect Magic, Fudan measured up their opponents.

The Incan team consisted of five men and five women.

Inti Yupanqui-Cápac, princeling and Radiant Mage, was Cuzco's captain.

Tica Chuquipoma-Yupanqui was their vice-captain, a Plant Mage. Her School of Magic was indeterminable, though Gwen did detect the familiar scent of a fellow Conjurer, one that had mastery over a sprite that smelled like Sufina.

Tupaq was a Mage with a hint of Abjuration. Likely a local specialist.

The other three men were not nearly as impressive as Inti and Tupaq, carrying the aura of casters at tier 5 or below. Uturunku was an Earthen Transmuter-Abjurer. Urqu, who wore a headdress of condor feathers, had the feel of an Air Mage with a mix of Transmutation and Divination. Qari appeared a Fire Evoker, though Jiro found the man's Affinity inferior by far.

Behind Tica were the female members of the Incan team. Sumatika was a water Mage of an indistinct school. Misi was a CQB Mage, evidenced by her dancer's figure and the obsidian daggers strapped to her thighs. Kusi, Misi's sister, was again a Mage of indistinct magic. Mallqu was the last member, one Mayuree determined to be a Support caster. 

It was an imbalanced lineup, Gwen deduced. The sort Walken noted as a team held together by a few core members whose abilities were extraordinary.

"That makes sense, really," her teacher had wisely articulated. "In a society of enforced homogeny, mediocrity is celebrated. If individuals like Inti popped up all over, how would the Empire maintain itself?"

"One mountain does not brook two tigers." Bai nodded in agreement.

"Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere," Gwen added her piece.

"Not to mention we're talking dragons, condors, couatls, pumas…" Walken chuckled. "Harmony-over-competition isn't a bad thing. Until you realise there's a shortage of talent to repel the next Tide."

Ergo, to defeat Cuzco National, the easiest thing to do was to knock out Inti and Tica.

"Take care," Walken warned them. "From now until the finals, all your CCs will be accumulated. Through victory for each match, your scores will flow onto the next. In the event of a tie or total failure - the team with the higher CC total will emerge the victor. In that regard, prioritise your quest. Deal with Inti only if necessary."

"And the locals have home-ground trump cards," Richard said. "We have to tread lightly and carry a big wand."

Gwen's attention returned to the ceremony. The llama was now being carried out. Later it would be blessed with pepper and rock salt.

"Blessed Inti!" the high priest declared to the amber mural. "O radiant day-star that melts the snow and makes the maize rise."

"Inti!" The members of Cuzco National saluted the dais by crossing their wristbands across their chest. It was the customary greeting used by the Empire's elite.

"Inti!"
"Inti!"
"Inti!"

Prayers to the Sun God filled the cathedral.

From start to finish, the ceremony had taken two hours.

"We now invite Lord Auberon Lucas to speak." The high priest vacated for the chief proctor and his assistant.

The Baron of Shenfield took to the stage with effortless ease.

"Students, advisors, and guests- welcome to the international round of the 2004 IIUC. This morn, in beautiful Cuzco, we accept this invitation issued by the Royal House of Cápac."

"To our hosts! It is with great pleasure that the committee accepts your summon. In the coming days and beyond, may our friendship flourish, and our cooperation be fruitful!"

Applause.

"Fudan!" Auberon turned to the contestants. "You have travelled far, and I salute your ardour. Cuzco National! We thank your generosity and grace. To all of our contestants, I hope that you shall keep your heart firm, your valour strong and your honour immutable!"

His assistant Magister handed him a scroll.

"Your TASK!" Auberon unfurled the parchment with a dramatic flourish. "Shall take place beyond the edge of the Eastern Suyu."

A startled murmur spread through the Incan audience, including Cuzco's contestants. Inti and Tica swapped a knowing glance.

Fudan remained unmoved, vaguely aware that the Amazonian region was virginal Wildland but otherwise possessing no idea why the Inca grew agitated.

The chief proctor waited until the congregation quietened down.

"You have heard correctly. In preparation for this event, our joint-survey with the Cuzco Tower, under Magister Amaru Paullu-Yupanqui, has unveiled a Dungeon in the hitherto unmapped region of Divi-Loc 12.61 S: 70.40 W."

Another murmur broke out over the assembly.

"Of course, we use the term Dungeon empirically. As for what our students shall find, I now invite our host to explain."

A thunderous meeting of palms rang out as Achiq, the Sapa Inca of the Four Corners of the World, took to the platform. Betraying Gwen's expectations, the king was a homely man with a modest bearing that reminded her of a middle-aged CEO. He stood a head shorter than his son, Inti, and sunken eye-bags marred his serious face. The contrast was so stark that for a moment, Gwen found it difficult to believe that the dry-looking sovereign could have sired his golden boy. Indeed, even with his golden mantle and headdress, the king's aura remained demure.

"Contestants, guests and friends," the Sapa began. "During the Tide, we lost vast areas of the Antis region to the monsters of Amazonia. Though we have recovered much, many of our ancestor's teachings and relics remain displaced. In this hour of our need, what brother Amaru has uncovered for the contest is one such piece of our past - an ancient temple dedicated to Mama Killa, the Moon Mother and her husband, Inti. Potentially, within the ruin rests many treasures- from lost scripture noted in the annuls of Quipu tapestries, to relics and wards from a time of old magic."

"As such, upon the shoulders of these young people, I wish to place the burden of recovering these precious artefacts. With the anticipation and hope of the people of Cuzco behind them, these brave warriors will enter the shadow of Amazonia and return our idols to the light!"

Auberon waited for the clamour to finish before taking over.

"Thank you. Your Majesty." He bowed, then turned to face the contestants. "Students, the Dungeon shall be a trial of intelligence, wit, and mastery over magic! Heed the Sapa's call to arms! The Quest to which you have been given will consist of two components. There shall be two parties of five members. First is the Explorer Team. Your task is to proceed into the unmapped region of Amazonia and locate said temple at the crossroads where three waterways meet. You shall follow the footsteps of great adventurers like Magister Shackleton and Meister Elijah Mallory in mapping the region for your companions."

"Should you succeed in locating the temple. Your instructions will be given to the second group — the Dungeoneering Team. Following your companions' footsteps, you will arrive at the ruins, ready to delve into its depth. In keeping with the dungeoneering spirit, I wish to inform you that not even your proctors know what awaits. All we possess is a record of what the Temple is said to hold. As the mission stands, CCs are awarded for artefacts, crystals, relics, and magical ingredients recovered. For additional credit, extraordinary events, combat, cooperation and preservation of the historical site may apply."

Auberon paused to study the students.

"Naturally, risk of life and limb is part and parcel the life of an Adventurer. I know that some of you may be wondering if Contingency will function in an isolated Black Zone. Well, I have good news for you."

"As a precaution, a special Contingency Ring has been crafted for all contestants, courtesy of Magister Amaru. The IIUC is aware that the impenetrability of the Amazon basin's dense vegetation will negate all effects bar the highest-tier of items. These custom rings have been modified to take you to the Cuzco Tower, as they have been manually attuned with resonating quartz-crystals unique to each ring."

The students from Cuzco relaxed. From their expressions, Gwen noted that not many of them possessed Contingency Rings in the first place. Comparatively, Fudan's cohort was well-provisioned, though they grew glad that in the worst-case scenario, they would be spared the cost.

"What a generous Tower Master." Richard applauded the bald Magister standing behind the Sapa Inca. "Complimentary insurance. How thoughtful."

Listening to Richard's miserly delight, Gwen couldn't help but think of an old saying- there's no such thing as a free lunch. For sure, she noted, there was going to be mortal danger.

"Students, friends, good Masters of Cuzco! Welcome to the 2004 opening match of the International Inter-University Competition!" Auberon raised his voice expansively as the guests and audience rose to their feet. "Students, in the spirit of fairness and genuine adventure, your trial begins at 0900 tomorrow morning! Good luck!"

 

 

 

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A note from Wutosama

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Wutosama

Bio: I write on the phone and edit at home. Times are tough!

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