Gwen left Yue to sleep off their conversation while she jogged out with her creatures to purchase fried dough and fresh-milled soy. In the living room, she apologised to Petra, who had been kept awake by the thinness of their walls, then began her round-the-block regime.
Along the way, hawkers waved as they stacked fried tofu or piled buns in bamboo steamers, filling the avenue with the smell of dim-sims.
With her ponytail swishing like a metronome, Gwen thought about Yue. Despite Gwen's "confessions of a man-eater", her oldest friend assured her that she didn't mind. If indeed Gwen found men uninspiring because of a phallic Familiar, who was she to judge?
"Beauty! The usual?" The old vendor, Mr Yang, towed the dough through the bubbling lard. "Fresh oil today."
"I'll take twelve." Gwen smoothed out her ponytail, still thinking of Yue's endless teasing.
"Hey, line up like the rest of us!" a customer entirely immune to Caliban complained. "Boss, why's she cutting in line? Don't tell me that's your daughter."
"My shout, everyone in line." Gwen placed a stick of HDM crystal in the change box. "Keep the change."
"Thank you, beauty."
"That's our Miss Song!"
"You show the Japs, Miss Worm Handler!"
"That's Gwen Song?" The young man who had called her out blanched.
Not wanting to cause a scene, the boss hastily wrapped Gwen's dough, tossing in two radish cakes.
"Thanks, Mr Yang. You let us know if the Chengguan bother you again, alright?"
"No bother! No bother at all." The vendor shook his head as he handed over the soy milk. "They very good now. Thank you."
Gwen waved the man goodbye. A week ago, she had happened to be out buying breakfast with Ruì when they saw a Chengguan officer harassing her breakfast joint. When Ruì confronted the man, the city guard made a show of taking both Ruì and Yang in for 'obstruction' of public duty. Much displeased, Gwen straight away called Dai and told him to make himself useful.
When the municipal police showed up, they issued Mr Yang an apology and a vendor licence, then took the surprised Chengguan away. As for what awaited the guard, Gwen believed that if you can't hustle when the chips are down, maybe its best not to hustle at all.
When she returned to the apartment, Yue was up, and Whetu had come to pick his teammate up.
"Youtiao and soy milk?" Gwen materialised breakfast from her ring. "There's enough for you too, Whetu."
"Yes, please." The giant's presence made her apartment seem the size of a Kobold cave.
"You ready for Dalian?" Gwen dabbed her lips with a serviette after inhaling a few sticks of dough. "I've got an Undead demo with Walken and Wen later today. You interested?"
"Nah, don't much feel like seeing his ugly mug." Yue waved a hand. "The comp goes from mid-October through to the end of the month. Pretoria is going to take another week to arrive at least. We got plenty of time to chill. Our Instructor will arrange some Undead encounters for us, I am sure."
Gwen checked the clock.
"Looks like I gotta go. Tonight, I'll take you to that Beggar Chicken place. Bring the team!"
"I'll see who's keen. Meanwhile, have fun with the Undead." Yue blew her a kiss. "And tell Walken that Master says 'fuck you'."
"So, Alesia's walking Fireball is here." Walken rolled his eyes. "I should be happy that her master is preoccupied. Can you imagine the two of them together?"
"They do get along like a house on fire," Gwen agreed.
Standing side-by-side, instructor and student both conversed under Fudan's Handan campus Stadium. The last time Gwen was here, it had been to receive Hufei Chen's guidance. This time, the war veteran came out of curiosity.
"You sure about this, lassie?" The gruff Conjurer watched as box after box of warded freight containers backed up against the rectangular array. Also present were Wen and her assistant, Gwen's cousin, both holding biometric slates in their off-white lab coats.
Presently, Gwen wore her Mary Janes with a loosely fitted boho-floral one-piece. The getup wasn't exactly professional, but it did leave enough exposed for Petra to inscribe diagnostic glyphs on Gwen's legs, arms, back and collarbones.
"Better now than later," Gwen thanked her teacher. Reaching down, she picked up Caliban by the waist and hugged her serpent against her chest. "Cali's a big boy now. You've taught me a lot."
"Just doing my job." Hufei kept his usual laconicism. "But I am glad you wrangled your snake. And your mongoose, I've rarely seen a smarter and more obedient Spirit."
Gwen smiled politely, allowing Caliban to coil about her narrow waist.
"Gwen, please begin." Wen indicated to the testing arena. "As we're still in the fact-finding phase, I could only commission samples up to tier 6."
It was a tier which would give an average Combat Mage a headache, though Gwen's observers were painfully aware that their sorceress ate mid-tier Magic Creatures for breakfast.
"That's plenty. Dimension Door!" Gwen reappeared in the enclosed room.
"Why is she in there?" Hufei raised a brow. "You just need her snake and the Undead, right?"
Walken pinched his brows. "Overzealous perhaps. But maybe this is a good thing. She has no experience against the Undead, except for soloing a Soul Eater."
Hufei recalled the vid-cast.
"Ready the tier 2 samples!" Wen wasn't overly concerned that her samples and her test sample were now rooming together. "Start with one!"
An assistant, one of Wen's many post-graduate acolytes, performed an unlocking incantation on the creature-crates connected to the force-fenced arena.
Ominous moans hinted at the container's cargo. Once the sealing ward ceased its glow, a shipment of Undead delivered fresh from the Front filed into the demonstration arena.
Presently, the Force Barrier admitted a single Zombie.
"Ew." Gwen ground her molars as the scent of rotting flesh assailed her nostrils. George A. Romero may not exist in this world, but the man was a bloody prophet when it came to predicting the likeness of the Undead. With her enhanced eyes, she remarked that the "man" was in the latter stages of decomposition, with "his" remaining flesh kept in repose by some unspeakable sorcery.
To think she was going toe to toe with actual creatures from the horror films of her alternative earth.
Presently, two forms of Necromancy existed: Sanctioned and Unsanctioned.
According to her declassified textbooks, Death Magic was the earliest form of human-made magic. Since antiquity, the worship of Death, Death Gods, and Negative Energy began long before Mages manipulated the Elements.
For Sanctioned Necromancy, one need not look further than the High Priests of Egypt. Drawing on a legacy of preserving the dead for mummification, the Hem-netjer-tep, first servant of Ra the Falcon-headed, could call upon shroud-wrapped ancestors to defend the Kingdom against intruders. Concurrently, the Sau, or Acolyte-Priests of the Kingdom, manipulated lesser corpses as mindless labour to fuel the Nile's resurgent primary industries. As for other surviving proto-cultures from Africa to China to the Israelites, death worship was embedded into their civilisations. Unlike Elementalist Spellcraft, magic users always knew there was power in death, and it should come as no surprise that the Path of Undeath begot many disciples.
Conversely, China's Northern Front was a product of the second type of Necromancy. According to her conversation with Jun, it all began in the 1950s.
After 1949, the newly emergent People's Republic of China, with the aid of Russia, sought to establish a Pan-Asia Communist-bloc. To prevent the formation of a hostile superpower, the USA, supported by the newly subdued Japan, joined the fray. The result was a proxy war fought by the two fledgeling nations across the 38th parallel.
Initially, the near Mage-less South Korean army withdrew to Pusan, but in 1954, the Commonwealth Mageocracy formally joined the conflict. Together, the two Western power blocs provided South Koreans with rapid education reforms, resulting in a slew of newly-Awakened Spell-fodder using the Imperial Metric System.
Two years later, in the Spring Offensive of 1956, the North Korean army, despite its Russian field advisors and quasi-magical battalions from China, lost Incheon. China responded by sending more men. As a result, the two sides seesawed back and forth from Seoul to Yalu. In just two years, the South Koran capital exchanged ownership five times, with the war falling into a state of attrition.
Still, the fighting continued. For the Mageocracy and the USA, the Korean conflict was a testing ground for new tactics and spells. Famously, the Korean Conflict was the first to see full-fledged Mage Flights. Infamously, Jun explained with ambivalence; Yalu was also the place where the PLA discovered that a quasi-magical NoM battalion was fodder when fielded against a mid-tier Mage Flight.
By the height of the conflict in 1957, the USA and its allies had committed 1.5 Million men to the cause, including 23,000 active Battle Mages. On the North Korean Front, 2.7 Million men were committed to pushing back the Western invasion. In the region between the Yalu Crossing and Kaesŏng, some 3 Million bodies mapped the earth, with an additional 1.55 Million cited as missing.
By mid 57, the USA, the Mageocracy, Russia and China grew war-weary. After back-channel discussions addressed each nation's concerns, all support to North Korea ceased.
As a result, in the winter of 1957, North Korea called for an Armistice Agreement with Six-Party talks between China, Russia, North Korea and South Korea, USA and Britain. However, when the signatories teleported into Pyongyang, what they found was instead the first days of the Undead Front. In response to calls for his removal as Chairman, the megalomaniac Kim Il Sung had turned to Necromancy in the maddening hour of his demise. With the Teleportation Circle now disabled, none survived the Pyongyang Incident.
South Korea was the first to enact countermeasures. Aided by the USA and its European allies, the military fell back to Panmunjom, creating a combat zone of salted earth filled with obstacles to deter the Undead. As history proved, the abandonment of a stretch of land ten kilometres wide and two-hundred-and-fifty kilometres from ocean to ocean was the right choice.
Comparatively, the Chinese Front had met with anarchy. Woefully underprepared for the Undead spilling from Pyongyang, the PLA's Central Bureau was caught with its pants down when five million creatures crossed the Yalu River. For the next decade, the Chinese Communists only managed to contain the Undead threat.
In 1971, the Beast Tide resulted in simultaneous incursions from Inner Mongolia, Qinghai, and the South China Sea. Within weeks, the Northern Front collapsed in its entirety. Liaoning Prefecture was all but overrun in six-months, followed by the loss of three million souls in Shenyang. Sweeping through Jinzhou, a swarm numbering six million made it as far as Tangshan, two hours Mage flight from Beijing before Central committed all of its resources to stem the tide.
Today, the Northern Front extends from Jinzhou to Xilin Gol, stretching the length of Manchuria from mountain to coast.
"MARRRRGH!" The lone Zombie must have sensed her overlarge brain, for it suddenly broke into a half-crawl, half-sprint canter.
"Do I consume it now?" Gwen asked her instructors.
"Why not play with it a bit?" Walken recommended. "Since you're here, may as well get some experience. Zombies are the most numerous of all Undead, and in enough numbers, they're virtually unstoppable."
"What if I get bitten?"
"Then we get more data," Wen scoffed. "Do as you will, we don't have all day."
By now, the Zombie was almost upon her.
Caliban looked toward its mistress, waiting for further instructions.
Having watched all seven Resident Evil films, Gwen struck out a heeled foot, then stomped at the creature's chest. In her mind, she pictured the Zombie splattering spectacularly against the wall.
Gwen suddenly found herself compromised by unwanted matrimony when her foot punched through the torso of the Zombie to exit the other side. Gore-soaked and covered in rotten flesh, she shrieked in place of her ruined Mary Janes, which possessed no mouth for screaming.
Leaning against her arm, the Zombie then bit her shoulder.
"G-Gross! Oh, Gods!" Gwen threw her hands wildly, striking the Zombie so that its head went flying. Shuddering in horror, she then peeled the briefly animate corpse from her quaking body.
Where it had bitten her, she could feel a slight soreness.
"HOLY SHIT!" She exposed her shoulder to Walken by pulling down the fabric. "I GOT BIT!"
"Betrayed by your strength!" Walken nodded appreciatively. "Ready for the next one?"
"What?" Gwen protested. "I got bit, Eric!"
Walken raised a brow.
"I am going to turn into a Zombie!" Gwen wailed. "How would you like that? Zombie Gwen! How would you explain that to Gunther?!"
Walken glanced at Wen. "What's she on about."
"How would I know?" The Magister shrugged.
"Gwen," Petra intervened. "Are you confusing Zombies with Vampires?"
Gwen pointed to her neck. "If you get bitten by a Zombie…"
"… then you need a healing spell?" Petra's gaze grew sympathetic.
"I don't understand?" Gwen felt her eyes moisten. She had seen her share of the Walking Dead. No matter the character's popularity on the show, one scratch and it's roll credits.
"Shaa! Shaa!" Caliban was confused as well; it had sensed no drop in Gwen's vitality, nor the slightest hint of malaise.
"Gwen." Walken pointed to the still groaning head. "You need to crush the head to release the Negative Energy."
"BUT!" his student protested, exposing her shoulder some more to show off her non-existent wound.
"Zombies are the lowest form of Undead!" Walken averted his eyes. "They manifest when minute Spirits from the Plane of Negative Energy infuse a corpse! When infused, they raise the freshly fallen as Zombies and are known to grow exponentially resilient when swarming. ZOMBIES DO NOT SPREAD BY CONTAGION. You're thinking of Vampires or Plague Priests. Did you study the bestiary?"
Gwen did study the bestiary, though it was very thick. Unfortunately, she had glossed over "Zombies" as she had seen Dawn, Night, Resident Evil AND had read World War Z.
But her Instructor's spittle seemed to indicate that she was safe.
"Void Bolt!" she silenced the chattering skull while nursing her shoulder. If she were to return as a Zombie, Walken would be her first victim.
"Nope, no different to a Gob."
"Good." Wen motioned to the operators. "Release the rest."
"MARRRRGH!" Six Zombies limped into the arena.
"That stench is enough to kill." Gwen's hyperactive senses were driving her crazy. "Eric, how bad does it get at the Front?"
"There's a spell you can get for the smell," Walken assured his student. "These are just regular zombies, mind you. You may very well run into exotic specimens called Putrid Ones."
She breathed through her mouth. "Wen. Mind if I test some spells?"
Gwen gathered her wits, then marked the shortest spell she could manage under the odious circumstances.
The room grew suddenly bright. A sizzling line of electricity pierced the Zombies. Where her positively charged mana struck, the foul creatures disintegrated, collapsing onto the floor as a smoking heap.
"Well done!" Hufei nodded in approval. "Lightning is the bane of the Undead."
"As you can see." Walken pointed to a husk decorating the floor. "Lightning disperses the Negative Energy held within the Undead's Core, destroying the 'will' that gives life to the pale flesh."
"Void Bolt!" This time, Gwen made sure to aim for the torso.
Where her mass of Void-matter struck, the Zombie's body folded in half, sans spine and left lumbar. But even collapsed on the floor, it continued to wail.
"Conversely, Void is only worthwhile against Undead that usurps vitality to regenerate," Walken advised. "The Soul Eater was an excellent specimen, for example."
The remaining zombies began to gain momentum.
"Likewise, low-tier Undead are quite fearless. Only higher-tier Undead are capable of thought and speech. The rest will swarm until everything edible is consumed, or they're destroyed."
Gwen listened as she activated her next spell. Each lesson she learned here would be one less surprise in Dalian.
"Elemental Sphere!" The ball lightning and its subsequent nova consumed her remaining enemies in a flash.
Hufei approvingly inclined his head.
"Please Consume the next few enemies," Wen interjected. "Mid-tier samples don't come easily."
Gwen signalled her compliance.
Caliban wiggled its tail.
"Release the Jiangshi!"
The second gate slid open, revealing a corpse in a lesser state of decay. The former resident of the body appeared to be Asian, and an old-fashioned one at that. As the Jiangshi left the receptacle, it began to hop in an ungraceful manner that was semi-comical and just terrifying enough to give Gwen the creeps. Unlike Zombies, which occurred naturally in places inundated by death, Jiangshis were created to act as guardians in ancient tombs. Once released, a Jiangshi possessed capabilities to transform the living into its likeness. A nightmarish stratagem found in Ming and Qing era tombs was the "live burial" of attendants. Once the tomb was sealed, the Jiangshi warriors transformed soldiers, minions and labourers alike into guardians.
"Don't let this one bite," Wen advised. "If it drains all your Positive 'Yang' Energy, you're going to turn into a Jiangshi."
"Caliban!" Gwen needed no coaxing to offer the creature a seat in Cali's all-consuming gullet. "Do it!"
The rigour-bound corpse managed about ten meters before her Void fiend coiled about its body and took the creature head-first into its enveloping maw. When the thing slid into Caliban's innards, Gwen sensed a metallic tang on her tongue. As Caliban translated its senses synaesthetically across their Empathic Link, what she tasted was akin to licking the gutter of an abattoir.
"Petra, biometrics." Wen reviewed her slate.
"I am on it." Gwen's cousin ran not one, but two diagnostic spells simultaneously. When she saw Gwen's expression, she couldn't help but wince with sympathy.
"Okay, I am feeling it," Gwen announced to the Instructors.
With a "Shaa!" Caliban delivered its payload.
"Gods!" Gwen groaned, her teeth suddenly chattering. Where the feast of life usually began as a gentle warmth near her diaphragm, growing more intense with each tier absorbed, she now observed an internally induced hypothermia. From the region of her liver, a sliver of Negative Energy flooded into her conduits, atrophying everything it touched. In the span of a second, Gwen transformed into a ghost, her eyes engorged by black-veins before her face flushed red-hot.
Gwen knelt, hugging her abdomen, dry-heaving as the world spun. An alarmed Caliban reached her side as she coughed and gagged against the barrier, trying to keep herself in one piece. When finally her Essence kicked in, revitalising her diminished vitals, she became drenched from brow to ankle in a sticky sheen of cold sweat.
"Gwen!" Petra's eyes went wide at the biometric transcripts. "Master, she can't Consume the Undead. It's too much."
"That Jiangshi was barely tier 4." Wen frowned. "Gwen, can you continue?"
"Bloody hell, Wen! A little humanity isn't going to kill you." Walken Dimension Doored into the sealed room and passed Gwen a towel from his ring. "Girl, take it easy. We can do this another day."
Thankful for the aid, Gwen took the towel from her instructor and wiped her mouth.
"Let's not do that again," she huffed. "I could feel the necrotic energy ravaging my insides."
"I know- I saw." Walken held her shoulder. "You're going to have to be very cautious at the Front. One wrong 'Consume', and you could be down and out."
"Sounds about right." Gwen inhaled and exhaled as her face regained its usual haleness.
"Shaa! Shaa!" Caliban inferred it would protect its mistress.
"Caliban can sense vitality though," she reminded Walken. "It knows what to Consume and what to avoid."
"That would be for the best." Walken studied his trembling pupil. In moments like these, Gwen reminded him of his daughters. Gone was the Omni-Mage capable of stopping a Swarm almost single-handedly, replaced instead by a young woman. "Shall we call it?"
"No, let's finish up." Gwen picked herself from the floor. "I'll be leaving Consume up to Caliban's discretion."
"Do as you will, but take care." Walken hesitated before teleporting back out.
"Are you fit to continue?" Wen's glacial voice boomed beside Gwen's ear.
"Don't push yourself." Hufei's concern followed.
"Magister Wen." Gwen shot herself a dose of Essence. "Please continue. I could use more experience fighting the Undead."
"Very well." Wen nodded. "Petra, focus. You there, release the next creature!"
Wen's subsequent trials consisted of a Ghoul followed by a Ghast. The Ghoul was a strange humanoid undead with both natural and Mage-made places of origins. Pale skinned and emanciated, the creature was hairless all over, hunching like a toad as it dribbled paralytic secretion from its maw. When it finally escaped from the stasis magic holding it in place, it launched into a quadrupedal gallop toward the awaiting Sorceress, howling and drooling as its purple tongue tasted her sweet body.
"Void Bolt!" Gwen snapped a bolt at the charging fiend, removing one of its limbs. As a mid-tier monster, the creature was more resilient than a Zombie.
Undeterred, the Ghoul landed on its shoulder, rolled, then continued its assault unimpeded by the loss of a limb. Caliban intervened, taking off an arm as it slammed into the grey-skinned humanoid. The Ghoul responded by clawing an arm-long welt on Caliban's upper carapace while simultaneously biting Cali's torso.
"Void Bolt!" Gwen aimed for the head but struck its chest when the Ghoul dodged. Unlike the clumsy Zombies, the higher tiers of Undead possessed agilities far surpassing their bumbling cousins.
A moment later. Caliban expelled the mess of flesh that once constituted a Ghoul.
The final "sample" was one of the more common "Commander" variants found in the Front. Compared to the Ghoul, the Ghast didn't so much resemble an Undead, but rather a creature akin to a Hob or an Orc. Smooth and sleek, the Ghast possessed a lean, muscular body, not unlike a human gymnast. When hunting, its jaws could distend and unhinge as wide as Gwen's head. Impressively, its flesh-coloured maw possessed a prehensile-tentacled tongue half-a-metre in length. When the grate opened, it bolted for Gwen not in a bee-line, but by bouncing from the Wall of Force.
"It knows PARKOUR?!" Gwen spluttered.
"Focus!" Walken spat back.
"Caliban!" She erected her Shield for the first time. In the next second, the Ghast slammed against her diamond-faceted barrier with a resounding thwack. Compared to the Da-Peng, however, the Ghast's assault was a mere toddler beating on tempered glass with balled fists.
What truly astounded her was that when Caliban gave chase, the Ghast fled. Gwen was aghast at the comical sight of her snake slithering behind a skittering, bouncing Undead. Frustrated, Caliban switched to its spider form.
"Wocao!" the Ghast swore as it fled.
"The fuck? IT TALKS?" Gwen followed up with an F-bomb.
"Beauty, how about we both calm down," the Ghast dodged a pair of scything forelimbs. "This doesn't have to end with one of us vanishing, whatever you need, brother will provide..."
"DON'T TALK TO IT!" Walken and Wen both shouted.
"Cali!" Gwen required no encouragement to silence a creature whose only diet consisted of human and demi-human flesh. "Onslaught!"
The Ghast groaned when Caliban finally caught up. It parried the first few blows, but Cali's spider form had more forelimbs than the Ghast possessed total appendages. A flurry followed, then the howling Undead fell to pieces.
"I curse your family!" came its last words.
"Shaa! Shaa!" Caliban stuck its tail spike into the severed head, singing in tune as a burst of Negative Energy released into the atmosphere, spelling the creature's release from un-life.
"Is it dead?" Gwen inspected the head.
"It has passed on." Wen read the biometric reading on her slate. "Looks like Caliban is immune to the Negative Discharge. That's useful."
"Okay, we're done." Petra signalled for the walls to come down. When she approached, the odour radiating from her cousin was enough to make her eyes water. "Gwen..."
"I need a shower," Gwen declared, then her eyes grew suddenly dead-serious. "Are there hot showers at the Front?"