"Inti's bowels!" Magister Sulca Palla-Orccosupa of Lima surveyed the blasted landscape. "By the sun, has Amazonia fallen into Uku Pacha?"
The emerald sea that had smothered the Inca's old city now appeared uprooted, exposing the Temple of Mama Killa in the manner of a burst military ration.
As for the temple structure itself, one side appeared as though buffeted by tornadoes, while Inti's sun fire baked the other side glass-smooth. On the central ziggurat itself, the capstone had collapsed into the interior, leaving behind what appeared to be an abstract, geometric volcano.
Sulca calmed himself.
"Squad One, Squad Two. Assume breach formation. Shaya and Parwa will take point. Alca, what do you see?"
"…" The Diviner took a moment to finish his inspection of the sanctum's interior. His eyes widened several times; then the man appeared as though he forgot to breathe. "Sir… I think we're too late."
"TOO LATE?!" Sulca snapped. "What of Lord Inti?"
"I mean, we missed the battle," the Diviner apologised.
The Chief Magistrate of Lima furrowed his brows. Unconsciously, his hand moved for the Message device at his collar.
As if in ambush, a Message bloomed beside the Magister's ear.
"… I see. Very well, Lord Magister." Sulca confirmed the new situation twice before turning to his men. "It would appear the team from Fudan has kept the situation under control. Prince Inti has lost an arm, but his life is in no danger. During the match, his Contingency Ring had a malfunction. We are to secure the prince and establish a Teleportation Circle."
"Inti, injured?!" The team was aghast at the news.
"Lord Inti's crippled!"
"Was it Fudan? Did they bring this upon Lord Inti?"
"Shut it!" Sulca's tone suppressed the sudden antagonism. "Cuzco's team entered the Winged Puma's cave, but couldn't quell the mother's anger. You will all show the utmost respect when we get down there. The Void Sorceress saved Master Inti's life."
The Mages fell into a self-conscious silence.
"Team 1 leads, Team 2 follows, keep your eyes peeled."
In formation, the Mages of Lima entered the sanctum.
"Apas below!" Sulca was the first to swear. Even with Alca's warning, he wondered if their present location was indeed Uku Pacha, the underworld, and that they had all flown into Amaru's belly.
Behind Sulca, his team likewise let loose with cries of horror and disbelief. Sumi, their healer, threw up in her mouth.
Sulca fought back the sudden sensation of vertigo. He wasn't a bumpkin by any means. Heir to a noble family, he had studied abroad in England and North America and gained his accreditation through UC Berkeley. Of all the Magisters in Lima, he was the most experienced and well-travelled.
Not that it helped him now.
As the Mage Flight cleared the broken levels leading from one sanctum to the next, bypassing the unveiled structure of the Inca's glorious past, the reality of the combat that had transpired came into view.
First, there was the "Swarm".
Pooled below was a small lake of writhing eels, or what looked like eels, squirming about the floors of the temple, looking for prey that no longer existed. Singularly, the creatures would not have frightened Sulca nor his men, but there appeared to be countless multitudes of them, each with whiskers about their eyeless heads tasting the air even as their glistening bodies squirmed.
Notably, there was a Kirin, one Sulca had anticipated from the report. Then, there was a Wyvern, also expected, though now the Wyvern was covered from horn to tail in wounds. Presently, the magnificent brute appeared to be ferreting the carcass of an Ancient Bird from the Wall of the Woods. When the creature's draconian head emerged to regard the newly arrived Mages, its snout steamed with coagulated bits of entrails.
"Got the Core yet?" a girl beside the Wyvern peevishly demanded of the creature.
To Sulca's surprise, the Wyvern politely nodded.
Usually, the Magister would have noted the infamous Void sorceress right away, but now his eyes were drawn to the strangest creature he had ever seen seated beside her.
It was the "Caliban".
At first, the creature appeared entirely lacklustre. It sat on its hands, demure as anything, jet black and silent like a dark blob. But when Sulca's eyes focused on the thing once more; he began to notice its uncanny physique, such as the fact that it sat on a pair of hands.
Sulca blinked, wondering if his sanity was suffering from the excessive stimuli. When he circulated mana through his eyes, he further noticed that not only were the creature's feet human hands; they were female. That, and they were six-fingered.
The Mage flight stopped just above the competitors.
"Greetings, contestants. I am Sulca Palla-Orccosupa, Overseer and Magistrate of Lima," Sulca introduced himself. "I come on behalf of Magister Amaru Paullu-Yupanqui, Master of the Cuzco Tower."
Presently, the Void Sorceress and a young man with a dour look approached.
"Greetings, Magister. I am Tei Bai, Captain of Fudan's IIUC team. Here is Gwen Song, my Vice-Captain, and these are our teammates. We thank you for your timely assistance, may I ask why you are here?"
Sulca blinked. Why was he here?
"I am here to relieve Master Inti…" he replied uncertainly. "Cuzco National offered for forfeited when the danger had escalated beyond what the Sapa was willing to accept."
The girl and her captain regarded one another.
"I wasn't just in danger, Magister," came the voice of Inti from behind Fudan's contestants as he pulled back his head shawl. "I was dead."
"Master Inti!" the Mage flight rapidly alighted, making sure they were well away from the slithering pool of obsidian bodies below.
"And Miss Song here brought me back to life."
"Resuscitated, actually," the sorceress called Gwen quickly interjected. "It was nothing. Just a heart massage and a chest defib."
"I owe her a great debt," Inti stated without an ounce of doubt. From the prince's expression, Sulca understood his future Sapa's inference that the Tawantinsuyu owed the girl a debt of gratitude.
Sulca's eyes then noticed that under the shawl covering Inti's right shoulder, the sleeve was empty. Like the missing arm, the Military Mage's mind went AWOL for a split-second before his brain caught up to Inti's claim.
"By his grace, we salute our Lord's protector!" Sulca crossed both hands against his chest to make the sign of the condor, a gesture of admiration and respect. "Hail! Saviour of our Sun!"
"Whoa… no no no, it was nothing!" the girl grew flustered. "Inti was of great help to us, and we were fighting as a team when it happened. It was something I would have done for anyone of us."
"That's of no import." Inti slid a hand over to his empty sleeve. "Where's Uncle Amaru? I would very much like to know why my Ring alone failed when all of my peers could return to Cuzco without incident. That and why we knew nothing about the Blood Moon."
Sulca's face grew flushed; he could almost taste the bitterness in Inti's words.
Falling to one knee, he placed once hand upon his heart, and the other toward his future Sapa in a gesture of supplication. Behind him, the two Mage Flights likewise offered their loyalties without reserve.
"I shall investigate the matter personally, my prince." Sulca dipped his head against the cold granite. "I shall find the culprit so that they may suffer your judgement."
Another Message blossomed beside Sulca.
"… I understand." The Magister looked up his future sovereign. "My Prince, Master Yupanqui requests that we establish a Teleportation Circle for himself and the proctors. You and Miss Musi should proceed to the infirmary immediately. Your father will await you there."
As Inti's gaze rolled over his body, Sulca began to sweat. Even wounded, the aura exuding from a man at the apex of millions of faithful followers was palpable.
"... I shall await the answer to all this." Inti turned, returning to where he had been meditating beside the still-senseless body of Musi.
"Pukyu, help Sayaya with the Teleportation Circle," Sulca commanded his team. "Killara, Nina, set up a perimeter."
As one, his Mage Flights moved to execute their duties.
"Magister, do we wait here?" The Void sorceress raised a hand impertinently, interrupting Sulca's troubled thoughts. "Is this it?"
"Why do you ask?" Sulca challenged the girl, only to realise that up close, he had to look up toward her chin.
"Well." The girl smiled attractively, pointing to the ziggurat. "I don't think we've lo— searched that place for treasure yet…"
Perhaps it was a coincidence, or mayhap that was the plan, but the curious fact was that Tica's father, Magistrate Huaman Yupanqui, flew in precisely when the Teleportation Circle was connected. After that, the proctors sent a delegation including Auberon, his assistant and a few presiding Magisters through the newly established teleporter.
Within the span of a few minutes, a total number of forty-odd Mages gathered in the underground ruins of the Sanctum of the Moon, making the once open space incredibly crowded.
"My boy!" Tica's father hugged Inti without regard for ceremony, squeezing the young man until his face turned the hue of ripe papaya. "Tica is going to be mad at all of us. I can tell you that! Those birds, where in Uku Pacha did they even come from?"
Cuzco's Tower Master, whose appearance Gwen recognised from their first day in Cuzco, patiently awaited his turn. When finally Huaman allowed the boy to go, his uncle swooped in like a condor to curry the prince's favour.
"Inti, your arm!" Amaru placed one hand on Inti's shoulder and the other on his stump. "A shame, such a shame! Don't you worry, nephew, Uncle Amaru will remedy your arm. As for the moon and the ring— I will have an answer for you, and the Sapa. If there are culprits, we'll find them, I promise."
"Thank you, uncles." Inti bowed. "Presently, I am beyond fatigued. May we soon be on our way? I wish to see Tica."
Amaru expression grew rigid while Huaman, his brother, broke into an obscene laugh. "That's the spirit! Are we to expect a grandchild soon? Another title to my name, eh? Royal in-law? Hahaha..."
"I will do my best." Inti's eyes lingered on his uncles as he spoke. "I promised her that we would, after the competition. Thanks to this incident, I am starting to see the need to ensure that our royal line is well provisioned."
"Absolutely." Huaman turned to Amaru, then slapped his younger sibling across the back. "Get Inti healed up, brother! That boy is going to need all his vigour. Maybe get them to add in a little more Positive Energy, eh?"
Amaru's facial muscles twitched as he grinned. His attempt to smile was equivalent to squeezing blood from a rock.
Inti turned to Gwen and her captain. "Thank you again, Gwen. Mr Bai, Miss Li, Miss Mui, Miss Kutsenova, Cuzco is in your debt. You are forever friends of our nation, so long as I live."
Gwen and the other members of Fudan bowed. The implication there was busier than a Quipu knot, but it wasn't their business. Walken had been very explicit about that. Do not get involved in the political transactions of the locals.
"Have a safe trip home, Inti." Gwen raised her head. The dynamic between the suspicious royal nephew, the uncle named after a snake, and the seemingly uncaring, grandchild-crazy father-in-law was awkwardness personified. "Don't run into any Da-Peng on the way."
By the dozen, the Incans filed into the Teleportation Circle, leaving one Flight and another from the local garrison. When finally their hosts had all but gone, the proctors approached Fudan.
"Congratulations on winning." Auberon nodded approvingly. "Also congratulations on showing the world why we should fear Void Magic."
"Wait— What?" Gwen spluttered. She had been practising spell safety the whole competition! Her Void-related performance was entirely OSHA compliant. "No one was hurt!"
Beside the girl, Tei and Rene exchanged a look.
"It was a jest," Auberon tsked, much to his assistant's disapproval. "Give me a second to formalise the match's result. Miss Pritchard, are you ready to transcribe?"
Auberon cleared his throat.
"On this day, September the 30th of 2004, in the vicinity of Amazonia, province of Cuzco— I, Auberon Lucas, Chief Proctor, by the authority invested in my judgement, declare Fudan University, Shanghai as the WINNER of the September round!"
"Good work, Fudan."
"Thank you for saving our Prince!"
The remaining proctors applauded, as did many of the locals from Cuzco.
Fudan returned the well-wishes with bows. Tei in particular not only bowed toward the proctors but respectfully fell to one knee to thank his ancestors. Realising their future broadcast, Rene followed. Lulan looked as though she wanted to do the same, but refrained when her knees refused to yield. As for Gwen and Petra, the two stood awkwardly, watching the Void Swarm below.
"How long is 'that' going to last?" Petra asked.
"That's right!" Gwen suddenly slapped her forehead. Causing the rest of them to jump. "Sir, we haven't gotten a chance to loot the place."
The proctors performed a double-take.
"I mean, there's likely relics buried somewhere." She pointed to the remaining ziggurat.
"You repelled a Beast Tide," Auberon huffed, his brows knitting and his hypertension rising. "And exterminated four creatures that are each a match for your Wyvern. You saved Inti, the prince of this nation, and earned the gratitude of the land's people. You recovered the temple, in a manner of speaking, by wiping out the Arch-Hag, and all of its minions. There's not a single troll left in this complex. You realise that, right?"
"Sir…" Lucy coughed. "We detected at least a dozen on the way. They're in the catacombs still."
"Those are CCs!" Gwen pointed out. "Also, there's no 'I' in "Team". Look, that's not the point. Our POINTS are the point. If we 'win', does that mean the match is over? If so, isn't that unfair for us?"
"You—!" Auberon pinched his brows. "There is a maximum allotment of points you can carry over to the next round. It was a rule put in place to prevent contestants from abusing certain mechanics of the competition to garner CCs, such as purging a Hive-type Dungeon but keeping the Queen alive as a CC-generator. With your achievements, I dare say that Fudan will have struck that limit."
"How much?" Gwen battered her long lashes, her glimmering hazel orbs inferring that if the amount wasn't sufficient, she would command Lulu to dig up the lower sanctum immediately.
Auberon held up five fingers.
"5000 CCs," the proctor declared. "Fudan will be judged on its merits and demerits, with a secret tally as back up, but 5000 is the upper limit for round one. Note that last year, the average for the first round was in the mid-2000s, with the top scorer, Stanford, earning 4640 CCs."
"That's five hundred for each of us." Gwen gulped. If she took Richard's part-timing into account, 500 CCs equated two to three high-risk requests or up to ten mundane errands. In ten days, they made enough to purchase five mid-tier Signature Spells from the Tower. "We can be satisfied with that."
"I would say so, yes." Auberon breathed out. "Well done with the Void Magic, lass. A true eye-opener. The Mageocracy will have your back when you need us; I can promise you that."
"As will Berlin," another proctor added quickly.
"That's good to know, Sirs." Gwen bowed her head.
"Kilroy sure dug up a little monster," the chief proctor chuckled. "So, when do these things disappear?"
"Soon, I hope." Gwen squirmed underneath the proctor's eyes. "They took in a lot of vitality."
"You can't banish them? Do they have IFF?"
"Ah haha..." All Gwen could do was simper.
It took the party another three hours to finally step into the Teleportation Circle.
While they waited, Fudan's vice-captain made sure Lulan was well covered, her dogs unsummoned, and her Familiars packed away. After helping Petra with her biometric-recordings, it was time to rake her Wyvern over the coals.
"... then the Da-Peng approached," Golos indignantly explained when she accused him of gross incompetence leading to the grievous injury of a prince and the near-wipe of their party. "I used Ryxi's Fuda and snuck upon them. Three birds they were, two males and a female. I managed to ambush one and drag it down into the temple. Did you see me? It was GLORIOUS, I tell you, killing a Da-Peng in direct combat, like in the ancient days! Wait till father hears about my deeds, ha!"
"Just how close were these birds?"
Golos snorted. "Close enough to strike."
"And just because they're within fifty kilometres of us, you think they're going to dive into a fucking Troll temple for no reason and attack us? Where the hell did you go before that?"
Golos grew irritable.
"When the moon turned, I thought it would affect Phelara and her tribe."
"I went patrolling."
"To Phelara, of course."
"Then I ran into the Da-Peng."
"Gogo. After you killed the first Hag," Gwen protested. "We were down there for almost twelve hours. You were gone for more than TWELVE hours! I know how fast you can fly. What were you doing?"
Golos looked at her dumbly, in his human form, his thick wyvern skull made him all the more vexatious in her eyes.
"My absence wasn't for long," the Wyvern countered. "A nap, at most."
"HOLD UP. Holy shit." Gwen pulled out her Message Device. "Gogo, what is this."
"A Human Magical Device."
"No, this—" Gwen pointed to the twenty-four-hour clock.
"What time does it say?"
Golos obliged by reading the time.
"Do you have a watch?"
Golos blinked at her.
"How do you tell the time?"
The Wyvern snorted. "The likes of us need so such thing to keep track of the lives of mortals. We Dragons live forever."
Gwen slapped her forehead. Was this her fault? Was this a work-place cultural dispute? She could no longer tell.
She now knew that Golos told the time by using his gut feelings, meaning he had no idea that time dilated when one was bored or having fun. While he was doing circles in the air, the passing of the first hour must have felt like days for the easily bored Wyvern. Meanwhile, when he found Phelara again and pounded her tribe into the local lumber, time must have passed so quickly that he hardly noticed. Assuming less than an hour for travel, Golos must have run into the Da-Peng on the way back from the westerly direction. More than likely, the Da-Peng were seeking out Phelara and her tribe— that or they were following Golos' stench, looking for a meal. Either way, she partly held the blame.
"Are you going back to them now?" Gwen changed the topic.
"Yes, will Mistress be joining me?" Golos grinned wolfishly, his nostrils scenting her essence infused torso.
"Sure, and Cali can give you a massage with its new hands," she returned the taunt with a retaliatory smirk.
Golos averted his eyes, submitting to her tyranny.
"You may go to your birds, but not before I get my Cores." She pointed to Golos' stomach. "Metabolise now if you're in a rush. Dig the Cores out and clean them. I'm sick of taking care of your shit, Gogo. I am going to train you when we get back. Else, I am going straight to Ruxin and getting a refund."
Golos' scales bristled, ever the combative mass of congealed pride and arrogance.
With her Wyvern puffed up, Gwen couldn't help noticing that her hound-brained mutt had grown visibly larger after taking on four Da-Peng and eating at least two-dozen Trolls plus a Hag. It was a testament to the potency of his Draconian blood, for what other beings on earth could grow stronger by merely sleeping, eating, and fornicating? If Dragons were as numerous as humans, they would have ruled the multi-verse by now.
In the days to follow, while Fudan arranged their return so that they could finally enjoy a long-desired period of rest and relaxation, Cuzco was in an uproar.
With the injured prince recovered and the news of Cuzco National's forfeiture came many muddling conspiracies. Be it the sabotage of Inti's Contingency Ring, rumours of factional politics were at play, or that foreign interference was involved, gossip lit up the Suyus.
Amidst the turmoil, the Inca Sapa presided over a three-day-long Rite of the Ever Burning Sun, purging Inti's body of impurities and calling upon the faith of the people to restore his son, their Sun and the nation's future Sapa.
As for Fudan, a full review presided over by Eric Walken followed with equal parts praise and scaldings, with each of the contestants writing up reflection and reviews of their performance highlighting their lacks and their plans to address those shortcomings.
When Fudan's IIUC contestants and the trope of proctors finally graced the decks of a Moller–Maersk ocean freighter in Lima, they received a send-off attended to by a full-bodied Inti, his appearance whole and restored. Dressed in ceremonial shawls and painted from neck to chiselled abdomen in gold, the prince made the young women blush and the men awkward as he blessed the ship, its crew and its passengers with good health.
Once the festive matters concluded and the media was ushered from the dock, Inti approached with Tica in-arm, followed by Tupaq.
Collectively, Fudan bowed before the prince. To their surprise, Inti returned the bow, eliciting some discomfort from the watching multitude of Lima and Cuzco's nobility.
"First things first." Inti stepped back. "I tried to dissuade them, but they insisted."
The gentle giant Tupaq stepped toward were Gwen now stood in her shoulderless sundress, falling to one knee. Even kneeling, the giant's head reached her chest, a testament to the Inca's abnormal size.
"Thank you, Miss Gwen, for returning Inti to us. Had our prince perished, my only recourse is to continue to guard him in the underworld." Tupaq crossed both arms over his heart. "The House of Huamancuri is forever in your debt."
"Thank you, Tupaq." Gwen forced the giant to stand before giving the man a big hug about the shoulder. "You did well in protecting your prince. As I said, I didn't do this for a reward. Inti deserved to live. Your country will do well with such a kind and generous future Sapa."
The next to approach was Tica.
"Oh, come on, don't stand on so much ceremony."
"Humph, you overthink." Tica came close enough for the two to embrace, then began to undo her shawl. "This is for you."
The atmosphere grew suddenly heavy, there was an audible sound of heavy breathing from the crowd, though Gwen had no idea why.
The priestess's shawl was a beautiful thing with geometric lines that mimicked the colours of the Amazonian macaw. More impressively, one side was sunburst yellow with bold red patterns and elaborate rainbow Inti-motifs in gold thread. The flip-side, impossibly, was mid-night blue, with motifs of the moon and Mama Killa.
Demurely, Gwen lowered her head so that the diminutive Tica could wrap the gift around her shoulders.
"With this, we're equals," Tica declared, holding Gwen's hand.
"Sisters it is." Gwen felt a great sense of accomplishment. When she looked up to see Inti, however, the prince was wide-eyed and sweating profusely.
"Is Inti alright?" Gwen pointed a thumb at the prince. "He looks about ready to crap a ton of gold."
"As he should be." Tica laughed. "You've received my approbation to become a wife-sister. I'll be Queen, of course, but you'll enjoy a position second only to me."
To their audience's delight, the Void sorceress' pale complexion grew instantly dawn-tinted, drawing both mirth and adoration. "I am afraid I must…"
"Take some time to dwell on it." Tica kissed her on the forehead, leaving a lip-print to mark the sorceress. "Thank you, Gwen. I owe you a great deal. I wish to say my offer is a joke, but you may take up the mantle anytime you feel a desire to return to Cuzco. One point you must take heed is that you wouldn't want to wait too long. I prefer our children to be of a similar age."
"C-Children!" To the observers, it would appear that the Void Sorceress had fallen under the effect of a mortifying Enchantment spell. Like a woman swivelling the wheel to avoid an on-coming semi, she changed the subject. "So er… any idea why Inti's Contingency Ring failed?"
The priestess leaned in for a whisper, her plump petal-lips almost nibbling her "sister-wife's" ear.
"...Jesus, how are you going to..." Gwen gulped.
"Worry not, dear ñaña. Inti and I have come to an understanding. I only hope that one day, Tawantinsuyu may call upon you for your continued friendship— and your aid."