Though the contestant's return journey to Hawaii would take many days, no such delay plagued the delivery of data crystals.
From Cuzco, caches soon graced the desks of New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington. Before Fudan had even crossed the South Pacific, Magisters in London, in Berlin, in Paris and Rome lit up their lumen-casters to peruse the reports of Kilroy's hidden apprentice.
For some time now, news of the girl had rippled the surface. This time, the results were potent enough to break the meniscus. Unlike in Burma, the Baron of Shenfield himself sat as umpire, officiating the data as reliable and unaltered.
Chief to the crystal of the girl's struggle in Peru was her ability to channel the Void without seemingly degrading her psyche. Her command over the Void creature known as Caliban likewise tickled the fancy of many a Tower Magister. When the sorceress transformed her serpent into a many-headed Naga, the optics were magnificent! When she conjured a Void Swarm of impossible proportions to consume the Beast Tide, the scene was spectacular! As for the Terror Bird polymorphy that consumed the Dragon-Eater, those in the know possessed no adequate words to describe their feelings.
Calls for her biometrics flooded into Pudong.
Seven Schools and a VMI over 300.
And the girl was just eighteen.
And the girl was from a Frontier.
And the girl had Awakened in the wild, a creature of chance and chaos.
And also, the memo returned: the girl was sister-in-craft to Gunther Shultz, Master of Sydney.
The Old Schools.
Unknown to most, a dubious event engendered the founding of Cambridge University— the murder of Mages by NoMs.
It all began when two Oxford Scholars caused the death of a young NoM Woman in the township of Oxford. As the tale tells it, the scholars deemed themselves beyond reproach, refusing to explain their circumstances to the townsfolk. Tensions then escalated, and when the mob attempted to arrest them, they defended themselves with sorcery, or what passed for Spellcraft in the 12th century. They failed. And before the ecclesiastical authorities could intervene, the townsfolk mutilated the scholars, looted their robes, then hung the naked Mages from Oxford's gates.
In the ensuing chaos, over a thousand sorcerers, wizards and warlocks chose exodus, ultimately forming the beginnings of the University of Cambridge. To further fortify their preservation, the scholars eventually succeeded in requesting a Bull from the Pope stating that no Mage may be judged solely in the court of mortal men.
Such was the origin of Oxbridge, a conjunction whose combined authority held the reigns of Spellcraft as taught in the post-industrial world. Between Oxford and Cambridge, the two institutions had begotten the Tower System, disseminated the Imperial Spell-Metric and indoctrinated the Mage world with Sigils.
Of the two, Cambridge consisted of thirty-one constituent colleges pertaining to seven Schools of Magic: Evocation, Transmutation, Conjuration, Abjuration, Divination, Enchantment and Illusion. The university's Arcanum Press likewise remained the world's principal source of new spells, responsible for the official organisation of the sanctioned Spell List.
At the zenith of Cambridge's administrators sat the vice-chancellor, second only to the ceremonial chancellory held by the Duke of Edinburgh.
And yet, here in the ancient and vaulted office of the vice-chancellory, Alfred Tomberry Crawford Butterfield was mopping buckets from his brow.
"Get the girl here, Butters. I am serious. When have I ever asked you for anything?" The sombre voice of Justine Maxwell Loftus, Marchioness of Ely, echoed from the vaulted ceiling, un-dampened by the row upon rows of ledges lining the walls.
"You realise, Maxi, there's a bollock load of politics involved? You're not requesting for the relocation of a prized cabbage. She's a Void sorceress, stuck in China, and she's a sister to von Shultz! Why I could—"
Alfred paused. He could see that the Lady of Ely did not like his tone at all. As his senior and a mentor-cum-colleague, a displeased Lady Loftus was a force akin to the deep currents found in the Plane of Water. Prim and precise to a fault, her presence quailed school boys and nobility alike.
"Excuses, Butters? Find some of those strings you're so unwittingly boasting about all the time. Isn't that why you hoard them? For pulling?"
Alfred realised he had to pick his words carefully. The unofficial title of the Marchioness was "Lady Grey", not for the unfortunate cousin to Elizabeth, first of her name, but for her ability to cut a man down to size with nothing but her steel-grey eyes.
"Maxi, you're making this hard for me," the vice-chancellor pleaded. "We can appeal through the official channels, but it will take time."
"Alfred Butterfield." The Marchioness turned upon Aldred those dreaded orbs and her pencil-thin lips. Suddenly, Alfred felt as though he was six and the governess had just found him conjuring a fistful of squirming slugs. "I want her for Peterhouse, and that's final. I never did say goodbye to Henry, and I want to do this for old times sake. I have zero sympathies for your methods, nor your cost. If you refuse on such flimsy grounds such as 'impossibility', I can find another Vice-Chancellor to do my bidding, do you understand?"
"On that front, it is Lady Loftus to you, Butters. Don't mistake yourself for your brother."
"Six-months?" Alfred tested the cracking ice.
"You have three."
"At least until the end of the IIUC, surely?"
"You think your task will be easier once the world witnesses the next round?" Lady Loftus scoffed. "Make the call, Butters."
"I'll… work on it." Alfred loathed making the promise because he dared not fail. His word may not be worth much in the eyes of the old families, but he couldn't shame the prestige of the vice-chancellory.
He too had watched the lumen-cast, and he agreed with Lady Loftus that the girl's elemental aptitude put London Imperial's Void candidate to shame. But to drag such a sorceress from Fudan, he would have to offer the Chinese something equal in return.
Fudan! Alfred's pride revolted. A low-tier university in a self-secluded nation knee-deep in the Undead! For Cambridge to offer a third-string University a Meisterhood, even one offering the "Applied Theory of Void Magic", was a wildly unbalanced exchange. Their reputation would dive, and with it, his career as vice-chancellor. If anything, Alfred had no desire to be known as the first officeholder not to complete his tenure since Magister Hartfield insulted the High Elves.
But then again, this was Lady Grey breathing down his neck. If the request had merely originated from a Marchioness, Alfred could have parried the demand, but who was Lady Grey? A shadow member of the House of Lords! The Marchioness of not just anywhere, but Ely! The progenitor of Cambridge's Peterhouse! The owner of the lands stretching from Milton to Littleport! How was Cambridge to expand its facilities if the Marchioness were to refuse her leaseholds? What if he received an official censure from Peterhouse itself? Cambridge had no official centre of power. It was a place ruled by prestige, and few Houses held the history and influence of Peterhouse.
Already, Alfred could imagine what his successor would say— "Butters did a good job as an administrator, but he was too green behind the ears. What's in a Meistership? Who would say no to a request from Lady Grey? That's the new blood for you; always slow on the uptake."
Alfred Butterfield forced himself to meet the Lady's eyes.
"You have three months." The Lady's tone softened, granting him a reprieve. "But if someone else nabs my sorceress..."
Alfred had to stop himself nodding by reflex.
The door shut. The lights dimmed.
Air once again began to flow.
The vice-chancellor sat in the gloom, stewing in the scent of old ledgers.
A Message globe bloomed over the archaic device on his table. The crimson hue indicated it was a call he could not refuse to take.
"Yes?" Alfred answered. "Milly, who is it?"
"Sir, I have Lord Ravenport on the line."
"Patch him through."
"Doing that now, sir."
"BUTTERS!" erupted a jovial voice that made his skin crawl. "How are you, old chap? We've missed your presence of late. A busy month?"
"Haha, you know how it is, milord."
"Oh, I do." A polite chuckle followed the curt courtesy. For some reason, Alfred felt as though something licked his cheek. "Now, we're both busy men, so let's not waste each other's time. Have you seen the IIUC crystals from Cuzco?"
Alfred Butterfield, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge, watched the goosebumps form on the back his hand, then felt them as they crawled up his arm. Beside his ear, Lord Ravenport's cheerful voice continued to toll.
"... you have? Good. Now. Butters. You of all people should be aware of our Faction's patronage of Oxbridge, yes? As a new boy to the old boy's club, I have a small task for you..."
Eric Walken was a happy man.
It had been a fortnight of victories.
Fudan had not only returned from their overseas foray unscathed; they had returned with the maximum allotment of CCs possible for an early round. Of course, he couldn't reveal his delight in front of the contestants. In his unremitting evaluation, he had rebuked Gwen for her thoughtless escalation while keeping his hypertension plainly visible to discourage the girl's risk-taking. Even with Auberon playing the diplomat, he spittle-sprayed her with criticism, especially when she almost lost a leg while saving Inti.
Still, to repel a Beast Tide! Even a manufactured one was a glorious feat! On vid-cast especially, the scene was a sight to behold. When the girl withdrew into her Void Egg and released the lampreys en-mass, Walken could only shudder as he relived Sobel's assault on the Tower. Was that a strategy inherent to Void Mages? He wondered, but soon realised he was her source of inspiration. In their conversations, he had spoken endlessly of Sobel, and it was from his anecdote that the girl drew her mimicry.
If so, should he invest in Signature Void spells for the girl? If an opportunity arose, they could pioneer some relatively singular magics that may increase her efficacy by leaps and bounds. Fudan lacked the talent, but his old alumni in London would surely be interested in a sorceress of such talent and limitless potential. The only problem Walken could see was that the girl came with significant baggage.
But that could wait until the IIUC passed.
Meanwhile, the rest of Fudan's contestants received their dues, especially following the national broadcast.
Of her teammates, it was the Sword Mage who was a clear standout. Thanks to the Naga Core, Lulan Li had become a broadcast darling. During the vid-cast, a full five-minute emphasis had been placed on the girl's single-duel with the Troll Chieftain, completely uncensored as she shaved the creature down to the stumps. As an ex-Clanner and an ethnic Han, she struck all the right notes. In Central's view, the girl was living proof that China's ancient martial-magic had its place on the modern battlefield. According to the news, Lulan was now "Elder Li of the Outer Sect", having been awarded a non-sensical title by Huashang to keep face without reneging on her "ex-communication". As for the elder who had stricken Lulan from the roster; Gwen said the man was now fencing bokchoi in the countryside.
New offers of support followed. Notably, a missive arrived from Petra's parents in Moscow Tower, the contents to which Walken wasn't privy. Bai received a commendation, hand-delivered by the Secretariat of Shandong province. Richard's parents were given the fast-track treatment to immigrate from Sydney to Shanghai, and Eunae came home to strongly-worded praises from the Seoul urging her continued performance.
Other fortunes flooded in. For the House of M, who Gwen had put in place as the team's financial sponsor. Messages and requests from corporations flooded in, the most poignant of which was an official apology from the makers of the Shen-tei armour, CCL Heavy Industries, promising better models for the next round.
As for Walken himself, he had received countless congratulations from his old contacts. Though the gestures appeared mundane, they were supremely important to a disgraced Magister like himself. For Walken, having old "friends" contact him of their own volition signalled his rebounding influence. He wouldn't be gaining a position anytime soon, Walken wasn't delusional, but at least he would no longer be left out in the cold.
Until the Dean's worrisome Message arrived, therefore, Walken had felt on top of the world. When it did, a bucket of cold water poured over the Magister's back, dousing the ember of ambition.
Like his rebellious daughters, trouble seldom travelled alone, and in the case of belligerent news, it arrived as a party.
Incredibly, Auckland University had defeated Tokyo in an enormous upset, repeating what Fudan had done to Kyoto and knocking Japan out of the IIUC entirely. According to the Dean's report, the match had taken place in Waitomo, in a hive-type Dungeon two hours flight from Auckland. In a straight-laced race of damage and pacing, Auckland had outperformed Tokyo University by closing the Dungeon on the fifth day, denying their opponents a come-back.
The next piece of news was that the Sorcerous Academy of Pretoria, or "Tuks" for those in the know, had defeated Nanyang Spellcraft in a competition which had been neck-and-neck from the get-go. Theirs had been the hunting-gathering of rare specimens and minerals in the archipelago of Indo-China, a contest from which Tuks emerged the victor.
Concurrently, the Dean's message also noted that in North America, the Massachusetts Institute of Thaumaturgy had defeated London Imperial. Likewise, Cairo had defeated Golden Sun in Meso-America despite their home ground in New Tenochtitlan. Finally, Ludwig Maximilian emerged the victor in Eastern Europe against Stanford.
The emerging groups for round two, therefore, were Auckland, Fudan and Pretoria in group 2, while group 1 involved MIT, Cairo and Ludwig Maximilian.
Of Fudan's two opponents, Walken preferred NSU, whose history dated only four decades. Comparatively, Tuks, named after the original Afrikaans acronym— Transvaalse Universiteitskollege, was a far older institution with ties to London's Imperial College.
In regards to the results, his paranoia lay in that with London Imperial's militants removed from the competition; an enormous pressure now fell on Tuks to best the "rabble".
Though Pretoria was rank 80 right now, its highest position two decades ago had been in the 40s. Comparatively for Auckland, 90 was the highest it had ever been, while Fudan had been unranked until the mid-80s. Likewise, of the three universities, only Pretoria possessed Meister-tier instructors.
For pride, prestige, and innumerable reasons, therefore— Pretoria would be giving it their all.
And then there was China's ploy to give Fudan a "leg up".
The location of the next match was the coastal peninsula of Dalian, a tiny corner of the Northern Front.
To Walken's limited knowledge, Dalian was a headland girt by the Yellow Sea on three sides. Infamously, its north-eastern border was crammed to the brim with Undead spilling from the fallen city of Shenyang.
Considering the catastrophe that was the previous IIUC foray into the Undead Front, the Central Bureau must have positioned the competition so that Pretoria and Auckland would be reluctant to send their precious students. That way, if Fudan's competitors refused to commit their forces fully, the host team could arguably emerge an easy victor.
As for the Front itself— Walken had no idea what was in store for the contestants. If anything, Gwen should be consulting her war hero uncle.
Conversely, now that his student had made her global debut, was the additional danger worthwhile?
Though Mages possessed Contingency Rings, casualties at the Front had never been low. When struck by a Soul Drain, afflicted by Umbral Shadows, Enervated by Ghoul-Rot, there was little a triage without Faith Magic could do. Circumstantially, the Chinese Front's voracious appetite for replacements, in Walken's opinion, was traceable to the state's steadfast refusal to utilise religion.
Could Gwen quit while she's ahead? Walken wondered, but soon realised the futility of such a thing. Even if Gwen were made to resign, her team would venture forth regardless. And in that regard, convincing her to abandon her teammates would be a task far more complicated than besting an Undead horde.
Ayxin sat with both hands placed atop her thighs while she studied the fist-sized orb, round on top and jagged below where it broke off from the Da-Peng's heart.
Even as a half-dragon-half-daughter-of-heaven, she felt impressed. For a being like Ayxin, the Dragons' rivalry with the Da-Peng was etched in her marrows. It was a conflict that gave rise to her existence as a being begotten by the alliance between the Yellow Emperor and the Five mythical Dragons of yore, among them her father, the Yinglong.
For Gwen to produce three Da-Peng Cores was, therefore, a great shock. Even now, she could feel within her body the welling of violent impulses. Together with awe, she also felt a deep-seated desire to crush the Core here and now.
"Wow, so this is a Da-Peng Core." Jun, her mate, picked up the misshaped sphere with one hand. "Heavy! It must have been a very formidable creature. Well done, Gwen."
With a greedy ear, Jun had requested the girl's latest adventure, who in turn had questioned Jun about his knowledge of the Front, citing Dalian as their next objective. Discerningly, though Ayxin had made it clear that she was ambivalent to the girl's cause, her husband nonetheless thoughtlessly promised his support.
"Jun." Axyin raised a dainty finger. "Put that back."
"It's not dangerous, is it?" Jun tossed the thing from hand to hand. "I heard the Da-Peng used to hunt Dragons, is that true?"
"It's true." Ayxin's exquisite brows furrowed. "Gwen, tell your uncle to drop it."
"Why?" The impertinent girl grinned at her, apparently reading her thoughts. "What's wrong."
"Jun, return the orb," Ayxin pleaded. "Please… just do it."
Though puzzled by his wife's distress over a dead bird, her human obliged.
"Sorry." Jun's face grew sympathetic. "Does the Core make you uncomfortable?"
"It does." Ayxin wished that Jun wouldn't be so questioning. He was a good lover and an attentive partner, but he could be woefully obtuse.
Jun replaced the orb, then reached over and patted her thigh. It was a habitual act, for having since discovered human "fashion", Ayxin had taken on his niece's preference for dresses above the knee. When Jun's fingers caressed her skin, however, Axyin had reached her limit.
Leaping from her chair and too overwhelmed to explain herself, Ayxin proceeded straight to the bathroom to vigorously rub-down the part of her where Jun had caressed.
Back in the private dining room, her lover spoke to his niece.
"Sorry, I don't know what's wrong with Ayxin, she's usually very accommodating," came the usual deference from her partner.
"Uncle," the little hussy's voice came across mirthfully. "You really should wash your hands. That Core was dug out by her brother from a waist-high pile of his own shit."
A troop of giants crowded the spacious international terminal.
"Rongo, what do you make of this?" one hulk said to the next.
"It's choice, bro. No wonder Shanghai's a tier-one city," remarked another giant waiting to process his Multi-pass. Like the first, this one sported terrifying tattoos from the neck to shin. "I heear there's good eat'n in the sety. The beggar's make chuken hāngi-style."
The PLA guards gawked. They had heard that foreigners were big fellers, but these fellers were BIG in a demi-human sense. When one of the guests grinned at a guard, he almost struck the panic button; a device only activated when terrible things with many limbs crawled through a Teleportation Circle.
"Whetu, this where your old mate's set up?" the giant called Rango turned to the one called Whetu, the largest of the lot by half-a-head.
"Sure is!" came a female voice at once shrill and sweet. "You lot, don't wait for me. Head right for the shuttle bay and don't forget your Translation Stones. I've got a Gwennie to cuddle."
"Oi, medgeet." A bear-mitt sized hand gripped the head of the female speaker. "Don't run off just yet; wait for the captain."
To the guard's surprise, the "Medgeet" fearlessly battered away the giant, allowing them a good gander at the lone female amidst the mountainous bodies.
Where the guards had expected a Gweilo girl, they instead beheld a local girl with a heart-shaped chin, baby-fat still fluffing her cheeks. Attired in a singlet and military cargos, everything about the girl was small and compact but for a pair of protrusions that were scandalously out of proportion.
"No need, the captain knows," the girl informed her cadre of giants. "Whetu can come if he wants to watch, but either way, I'll be rocking my Gwennie all-night-long!"