Following the ceremony and the announcement, the teams took an hour to change their attires, re-emerging at noon into a converted courtyard.
Ever the suspicious cynic, Walken subtly patrolled the perimeter, studying the site for anything of interest that may befoul the team. By the time the party was in full swing, he couldn't help but acknowledge a woeful absence.
There was no duelling arena.
Indeed, no space had been reserved for Fudan's foremost strategy. There wasn't even a barrier. Should a fight break out, there was a genuine possibility of damaging the ancient temple.
Well, bollocks, Walken grumbled to himself. How could Gwen lay down the gauntlet when there's no place to jostle?
"What's the meaning of this?" He quickly joined the conspiracy of proctors in the courtyard. "Auberon?"
"You've got me there." The chief proctor put up both hands in a gesture of innocence. "Maybe they got wind of your Void Sorceress' records? I heard she has never lost a duel. That and she pounded down a pseudo-mythic in Burma. Who the hell would want to duel that?"
"..." Fudan's instructor blinked. What Auberon said made a lot of sense.
"If I were Cuzco, I wouldn't want to shame my princeling in public either." Auberon shrugged. "The son of a God must remain as such- you get my meaning?"
It was a reasonable conjecture.
Could it be true? Walken wondered to himself. Was this that Militant Pacifism he had heard from Kilroy? Supposedly, it was Gwen who came up with the idea.
His eyes passed the Incan nobles in their gold and jewels. It didn't take much effort to locate his cabal of sorceresses. There was Gwen, Petra, the golden boy, and the smitten priestess.
"Walken, you worrywart, leave them be," the Baron of Shenfield advised, "What is she, your apprentice? Didn't you kill her beloved Master?"
"You know that's not true," Walken warned his friend. "I am worried she might get us kicked out. You know what she did to the heirs to the Yooksung Group?"
"I too saw the Vid-cast."
"If she thrashes him in his temple..."
"Don't be such a prude, Eric." Auberon swirled the Argentinian Malbec in his glass. "Let the kids have their fun."
"What fun would that be?" A third voice joined their conversation. It was Cuzco's Tower Master, now the majordomo.
"Eric- you remember our host?" Auberon bowed, then brought the two face to face. "We met at the 97 Los Angeles PACT conference."
Walken suppressed a shameful flush of the cheeks. When he had last met Cuzco's Tower Master, they had been equals.
"I doubt one of the Ten would recall a provincial like me," sounded a voice with the consistency of silk. "Nonetheless, the pleasure is all mine, Eric..."
For an international broadcast, a smidgen of nationalism for the home front was expected. As such, cultural outfits had been the theme both Fudan and Cuzco had chosen for the mid-day llama feast.
On Cuzco's side, its members were ceremoniously adorned with a king's ransom of gold. Conversely, the Asian students elected a Shanghai speciality: silk cheongsams provided gratis by a designer in Suzhou.
For the men, their formal attires gave them a gravity which the youngsters lacked, adding significantly to Fudan's presentation. As for the girls, the styles which Gwen had picked out were elegant and provocative, scandalising the Incans with an attire that had bedazzled European expatriates for a century.
In their figure-hugging outfits and colour-matched heels, the girls cast such a sight that Jiro had trouble walking.
Playing their part as the team's poster-girls, Gwen and Petra made the rounds, shook hands and flirted with the smitten locals before taking advantage of lumen-ops that would soon arrive back home. For Gwen, it was business as usual, while Petra's coldness only made her more mysterious and alluring.
Sure enough, once the party had the momentum to proceed on its own, Inti approached. In his conforming-tunic, the young man was awe-inspiring. With his natural tan and trained body, Inti wouldn't look out of place if he were to apply zinc to his nose and emerge from the surf at Bondi.
"What do you think?" She nudged her cousin. "Ripper of a bloke, eh? You keen?"
Petra's answer came in the form of a playful pinch that made Gwen yelp.
But before Gwen could ply the old charm, a priestess intercepted the prince before he could introduce himself.
"Miss Song, it gets cold in Cuzco." A set of dark pupils traced the arch of Gwen's dress from hip to ankle. "I hope you won't catch a cold before the match."
"A chill, when the sun's so close?" Gwen suppressed a smirk as she teased her hapless interloper.
Behind the girl, she caught Inti trying to place his eyes somewhere innocuous. To gaze at the vice-captain's face was too embarrassing, looking lower was lewd, and to stare at her feet was perhaps worse.
She flashed a winning smile, urging Petra to do likewise. Before they duelled, it was good to lower her opponent's guard.
"So, Prince In—"
"He's taken." Tica's interruption snapped like a whip. "We're engaged!"
An awkward silence reigned as Tica gloated. Gwen wondered if she could get Tica into a duel by flirting with Inti. Petra had a dozen spells she had wanted to test on the Radiant Mage.
Cuzco's captain soon broke the tension by changing the topic.
"Dear ladies, may I borrow both of you to sound a proposal?" An overpowering earnestness washed over them like warm water. "Miss Gwen, as Fudan's Ace, I understand you occupy a central position within the team. Will you lend me your ear?"
Gwen lowered her eyes for a moment to circulate a mote of Almudj's Essence. Whether intentional or otherwise, Inti's unadulterated positivity was intoxicating.
"Of course, I'm happy to listen."
"Thank you. Then I shall make my case." Inti appeared unfazed by Gwen's glowing irises. "As you well know, Uncle Amaru has set a quest that benefits my people. No matter which one of us is the victor, Cuzco remains a beneficiary."
"That's right," Gwen concurred. "And?"
"And as such, we would be obliged if our missions could be carried out cooperatively."
"Oh?" Gwen studied the man's unblinking eyes. Cooperation? She was here to kick his ass, and he wanted to hold hands? In the previous match, both Jiantong and Seoul had wanted to butt heads, while Kyoto was an ally of circumstance. "From the get-go?"
"Yes, from the beginning." Inti showed off his perfect teeth. "In Amazonia, survival will be our greatest challenge, not each other. If so, why not strike an accord? Our competition shouldn't be won or lost because of us undermining one another. We can both benefit."
"A win-win?" Gwen rested a hand against her hip, fascinated by the prince's selfless generosity. The proposal was tempting. After all, wasn't the Middle Faction's motto mutual gain and mutual compromise? "I won't say no, but you can't expect me to believe you're happy with losing? Doesn't Cuzco have home advantage? Why should you hamstring yourselves?"
When he next spoke, Inti's voice took on a resonant, euphonic quality. "Miss Gwen, I am imploring you because I am a realist. I am under no delusion that Cuzco National will measure up against opponents outside our domain. I know that compared to the Europeans, our meagre mastery of Spellcraft will not win us the IIUC."
"You say that now—" she protested.
"Miss Gwen. I know you wanted to use the luncheon to duel myself and Tica." Inti's words exposed her naked ambition. "I've heard of your prowess. However, in my opinion, senseless fighting will only sour our future cooperation. That's why I had the duelling arenas removed."
Gwen chuckled uncomfortably. Beating seven shade of shit out of Inti had indeed graced her and Walken's data slates.
"Let me say this: progressing to round two isn't our principal objective." The Incan candidness caught her flatfooted. "With the quest unveiled, we have more important objectives. Do you wish to know why Cuzco strived to enter the IIUC?"
"It's so that we can remind the world that the Empire is a bastion of humanity" Inti intoned reverently. "For the days ahead, we will prove to the world that in Amazonia lies the greatest threat to the continuation of human dominion in the region. Should there be another beast-tide, South America may become a Demi-human continent."
Inti's eyes burned with conviction.
"I bring, therefore, a proposal of peace. In the days ahead, we shall not impede one another's progress in our quests. As we are all siblings under the sun, should we not act as such? Cuzco has no conflict with Shanghai. Why not let us open a new chapter of cooperation between our two cities? I sincerely believe that in working hand-in-hand, we shall both succeed in our endeavours."
Inti glowed, and his audience quaked. Gwen felt her heart soften. In her eyes, Inti appeared as though a radiant labrador begging with liquid eyes. To refuse would be kicking the biggest puppy under the sun.
"I understand if you find it difficult to trust us," Inti whined. "I would be suspicious too. As a show of sincerity, my team shall swear on Inti's name that there will be no betrayal..."
"Hold your llamas." Gwen stopped the prince before he could continue to paw at her conscience. "Let me get Tei."
Taking advantage of her height, she scanned the party for her teammates. There was the flirtatious Jiro, keeping a dozen dates with a dozen priestess candidates, letting the girls pet his Firebird. Behind the young man, Rene answered questions while trying to keep Jiro from the giggling virgins. In a shaded corner, Mayuree and Eunae hid behind the dessert table, two introverts perfectly happy to be left alone. Across the courtyard, Richard conversed with the proctors, gathering intel. Beside the carvery, Lulan was slowly whittling the llama down to the bone.
Finally, she spotted Tei speaking to the Incan giant, Tupaq.
"Cap!" Gwen's voice summoned her captain to the corner where she and Petra stood in opposition to the golden prince and his bangled priestess. "Inti has offered us a deal."
The two captains shook; then Inti made his case.
Tei fell into silence.
Gwen knew her captain's dilemma, for their original plan centred around harassing Cuzco with her hounds and Familiars. If indeed Inti wanted a cooperative mission, was it then to Fudan's advantage or disadvantage? If so, was this a multi-dimensional ploy, or the innocent hope of a princeling?
"So that you know, I am fine with cooperation" Gwen delivered her verdict, drawing on her experience in Singapore. "Trust me when I say that between trolls, insects, carnivorous plants and the other demi-humans, we'll be taxed beyond belief."
Tei weighed her words.
"Captain, allow me to share a token of our sincerity," Inti earnestly intoned. "According to Quipu records, the lost temple of Mama Killa isn't a single structure. It's a sprawling city-centre swallowed by the jungle."
"Oh, I see!" Gwen threw away her vision of a half-sunken Indiana movie set. She had been to Angkor Wat in her past life and could imagine the majesty of a lost city consumed by the wilderness. If so, then the Explorer team would indeed struggle to locate such a site. In her old world, even with regular, non-magical trees, Machu Picchu had remained hidden for four centuries.
Tei thanked the prince. As the heir to a family of tomb guardians, he was no stranger to lost relics. If the "temple" was instead a vine-strewn city, then the competitive prospect of recovering relics had improved immensely. During the dungeon dive, the teams could race to the middle while watching one another's backs. With Gwen on their side, he had full confidence in a clean sweep through the complex that would leave no stone unturned.
"Well?" Tica butted in, breaking Inti's spell to critique Fudan's indecision. "Are all foreigners so lacking in trust?"
Tei looked to his vice-captain.
Gwen struck out a hand.
The two captains and vice-captains exchanged handshakes. The commotion was such that both scattered teams gravitated toward their leaders.
"ALRIGHT!" Gwen quickly freed her fingers from Inti's hands when Tica's lips twitched. "Let's celebrate!"
Inti motioned for more wine.
"No, no." Gwen materialised a white-jade bottle of half-century-old Maotai. From the other, she placed a dozen shot-glasses on a side table. "THIS is the Chicha of the orient, made from the finest scarlet sorghum. To celebrate our cooperation, why not have a friendly competition?"
"Ha!" Tica confronted her opponent, though her face only reached Gwen's chin. "I shall take you up on that offer!"
"Miss Tica, in the interest of our burgeoning friendship, I must inform you that Gwen has Russian blood," Petra forewarned their host. "When drinking, we have no equal."
"Oh, yes, the 'Russian' blood," Gwen smirked like a fox in a hen house.
Without adieu, she poured.
To the chagrin of his handlers, Inti drank without so much as a nod from the poison-taster.
"Somaq Mihuna!" the prince exhaled fragrantly, demonstrating his trust. "Wonderful!"
Tica followed suit, then flushed scarlet.
Petra passed a cup to Tei before happily supping her own.
Gwen slammed her thimble without blinking, then topped up the cups once more.
They drank their drinks.
They filled the cups.
"Good man!" Gwen gave Inti a thumbs up. "To friendship!"
Three shots down and his vice-captain's bottle-hand remained steadier than an Earth Elemental.
Russian blood? More like draconic-constitution!
What happened to honour?
What happened to honesty?
Was Fudan going back on their word so soon?
At night, Fudan's cabal of Mages gathered in Gwen's portable habitat.
"Are you satisfied?" Walken admonished his students.
"I was testing his abilities." Gwen grinned.
The rest of the team snorted.
"Did you forget I was there?" their advisor grunted. "Inti had to be carried out! Amaru's niece was one shawl away from wearing nothing but a tunic!"
"So close!" Jiro sighed before being glared into submission.
"A full-body tunic," Gwen protested. "They're the ones who wanted to mix-alcohols! Amateurs."
"I told you to handle them with care!"
"That was me with kid-gloves." The Void Sorceress pouted. "If I used schooners, one of them might have died."
"You're an addict!"
Walken clutched his chest with a pained expression, trying his best to keep his impulses in check.
"Alright, alright." Richard came between them. To Gwen, Eric was on her level, but to the rest of the gawking team, Walken was a renowned Magister. "Sir, your advice?"
"Hmmph!" Walken huffed. "Back to the business then: Contingency Rings. Team makeups. Amazonia. Collaboration and competition."
He tapped his data slate.
"I want to hear your proposals. Gwen, if you're so sober, let's start with you..."
A strange song lifted through the golden hall of Sacsahuamán.
Shinny is he:
Inti of Coricancha—
Strong as ten regular Evokers, probably!
He faced the trollish galloping hordes—
A hundred ogres with swords—
Then threw them all in the SUN!
Oh, Prince Inti—"
The adolescent acolytes of Inti's temple grew hypnotised by the chant of a green-eyed Void Witch.
"He's got sixty priestesses to attend to,
and he's got virginal llamas galore…"
"Gwen!" her instructor hissed at the girl's embarrassing display. What the hell was she teaching these kids?! Why were the lyrics so lewd? "Get back here!"
The girl returned.
"Inti's late…" she eyed Cuzco National's team just beside them, all present except for two central figures. Yawning, she stretched her legs. Tupaq the giant caught her eye before flushing a deep scarlet, changing the colour of his face from caramel to chocolate. As for the rest, the Incan team eyed Fudan enviously, gawking at their attire in the same way Fudan had eyeballed Seoul's thrice-enchanted uniforms.
For their international leg, Gwen and her peers wore quasi-magical combat suits sourced from the PLA. The whole ordeal had begun when Gwen convinced Guo to send a note upward that her team was fighting in rag-tag, often un-attuned clothing. To prove her point, she showed him her shredded bodysuit and cried wolf about the possibility of indecent exposure while overseas. Her grandfather had then grunted that he would look into it. A week later, there was a surprise inventory audit at the PLA Tower.
Serendipitously, ten suits of Shen-teī RECON MKII Operator's Garb soon arrived at Fudan. The design was proudly plagiarised from the lastest American variant: the plating absorbed damage, the mesh was self-healing, the interior self-cooling, and the fit was self-adjusting.
Haughtily, Gwen played with her straps, then once again polluted the sanctified air with her Gwenisms.
Shinny is he-
Inti of Coricancha…"
The double-doors opened.
"My apologies for the delay!"
Tica followed Inti demurely as the prince burst through the door with great dread. In front of her, the crowd grew instantly scandalised. They had never seen the prince so dishevelled.
Tica groaned, her memory was a mess.
When Tei Bai retired after three glasses, Cuzco National had gotten its hopes up. Then after that, Tica recollected nothing. All she possessed were vague images of Chicha, Aztech tequila, Argentinian red and Chinese Maotai; that and the wicked witch's smiling face.
Tica scanned the crowd, then sucked in a breath of cold air.
Fudan's contestants appeared as though dressed for war.
The witch waved back.
Seeing that the hussy was haler than a Frost-troll Howler, Tica's stomach cramped. Yesterday, she and Inti had spent an hour hugging the golden throne, despairing when not even a Restoration could clear the effects of scarlet sorghum. Unlike Chicha, Maotai was an elixir-like suffusion.
Tica felt her back covered in cold sweat. When provoked, her master could be madder than a plucked condor.
Thankfully, the chief proctor proceded her uncle. After welcoming the students, he asked them to register their inventory, declare all goods, then thumb the disclaimer for the Eye of Providence.
At the end of the hour-long inspection, Magister Amaru Paullu-Yupanqui presented the students with their Contingency Rings.
When her uncle placed the ring in Tica's hands, he gave her fingers a subtle squeeze, easing her anxiety. The jungle was a dangerous place, and Tica suspected the key rationale her master had the rings crafted was for her and Inti's safety.
"Students! These are the rings tied to the mother-lode inside Cuzco Tower," the kindly Tower Master explained with great patience. "As they use the same Enchantment as your Contingency Rings, both items cannot be concurrently equipped. As such, you have the option of using the given device or your own. Should you do so, Cuzco is not liable for your safety."
Tica watched as a few of Fudan's students incanted their secret commands, then removed their rings. Conversely, Cuzco's team had scant members wealthy enough to own Contingency devices. The palpable difference was enough to engender a feeling of inferiority.
If Shanghai was wealthy enough to equip their team with military Magi-tech and devices worth hundreds of thousands of HDMs, what would a top twenty team from London or Berlin or Los Angeles possess? With Cuzco's limited trade with the nations up north, how could they compete against that?
Her uncle Amaru had likewise said that the Inca needed desperately to catch up with the rest of the world. Now, seeing Fudan in their colour-coordinated skin-suits, she couldn't help but acknowledge that the Empire had a ways to go.
"... I shall await your arrival at our basecamp in Marcapata." Auberon had reached the end of his speech. "Let me remind you that beyond the Gate of the Condor, there is nought but Amazonia until you hit the South Atlantic. Try not to miss it..."
The teams moved out.
Once outside, a group of nobles, including the Sapa Inca, met the students for final well-wishes.
"May your noon be bright and fair." The Sapa kissed his son on the forehead, touching his three condor feathers to Inti's two. He then drew Tica close and kissed her forehead as well. "Be safe, daughter."
Her father was there as well, and he likewise kissed his daughter.
"Tica, take care of Inti."
"You know I will." Tica pulled herself away. "Solpayki, Father."
In the Quechua tongue, the term favourably meant "until we meet again."
As for Fudan, they had only their advisor to see them off, a sad contrast that improved Tica's mood.
"Students!" her uncle, the Tower Master of Cuzco, ordered the contestants forward. "May the blessing of Inti fall upon you even in the darkness of Amazonia!"