With the formalities petering out, the contestants moved to a courtyard lit with Dancing Lights, forming a dazzling display where illusory lanterns suffused the garden with gentle ambience.
Unlike Cuzco, the PLA proved keen on inter-team duels. However, to limit injury before the contestants ventured into an Undead Black Zone, the duels had been restricted to individual bouts.
After a speech about professional conduct, sportsmanship and safety, Magister Jamison invited the teams to offer volunteers. Likewise, to prevent damage escalation, the style was set to Oxford, meaning that contestants entered the bout without pre-buffs.
Gwen was halfway to the dais when Walken commanded her to stand down. As their ace in the hole, she was far better suited to countering enemy Mages.
"Lulan," Tei implored their sword-wielding starlet. "Do you mind starting for us?"
"Not at all." Lulan Misty-Stepped onto the announcement platform. For the evening event, the students had changed out of their formal wear into university-themed training outfits. In her tights and halterneck body-suit, Lulan positively glowed. To her unsuspecting admirers, the girl possessed a striking aura. To Gwen, she knew that Lulan's battle-heavy training regime fed the Naga Spirit like no other and that its Draconic-essence was likely nourishing Lulu.
Arriving, Lulan bowed toward the chief proctor, the overseer of the duels before facing the crowd.
"Lulan Li, Sword Mage of Fudan! I seek instruction from my seniors!"
Yue met Gwen's eyes across the room. To her disappointment, her aunt-in-craft shook her head.
"Allow me, sister," came a reply from Pretoria. "I am also a Spirit-bonded Earthen Mage. I'll show you a few tricks— if you're willing to learn."
Gwen recognised the young Mage as Ella Goosen, a flaxen-haired beauty with a bronze complexion. Side-by-side, though both were Earth Mages, Lulan's figure was compact and petite; Ella's was tall, dignified, and glowing.
"I look forward to our exchange—" Lulan bowed. A second later, she Misty Stepped into the duelling cage.
Unlike her opponent, Pretoria's Abjurer did not possess instant-movement spells.
"Let's play a game." Ella raised a hand, making a gesture for Lulan to initiate the first strike. "Attack all you like. I shall forfeit if you breach my defences before you are OoM."
"Deal." The crowd roared as Lulan slowly materialised all five blades, causing a cascade of lumen-bulb flashes to fill the arena.
"HaiiiiYA!" Lulan leapt into the air, twisting and turning her body to gain the momentum necessary to begin her blade dance. "Panzerschreck!"
She fired off a single blade to test Pretoria's defences.
"Man van Goud!" Ella's pupils transformed into pin-points of golden brilliance. "Golem, kom!"
A clay-statue rose from the ground where Lulan had expected a shield to manifest. To her complete amazement, the vague figure moved, catching her blade with mitt-sized hands, eliciting a clank of fiery sparks. Not relenting on the momentum of her strike, Lulan fell into her usual rhythm.
"Golems! Defend me!"
Four human-sized gingerbread men had now manifested, and each of them clutched Lulan's blade. In the eyes of Fudan's observers, Pretoria's Abjurer must have anticipated a comfortable victory if she disabled Lulan's melee spells.
"Heart-Seeker!" Lulan waited for the moment the fourth nugget-man caught her blade before firing her final weapon through the gap.
"Shield!" Ella hurriedly manifested a shimmerin, golden shield with a malleable surface that snagged the blade's cutting edge.
"BRAVO!" came the sound of Gwen's breathless voice after seeing so much gold in one place. "Good work, Lulu! Great defence!"
"Not using Blink?" Ella ignored the hooting Void Sorceress, then snorted at the petite Sword Mage. "You do yourself a disservice."
"It's not a fight to the death." Lulan allowed her blades to crumble. "If you insist, I'll Shield Break you in the next minute."
"Do your worst, meisiekind."
"This will hurt. SWEEP!"
Lulan stomped the underfoot Force Barrier, using the rebounding energy to somersault above the haughty Mage and her gold-laced Earth Elementals. Though Lulan herself had no name for the flurry of strikes she now committed, the watching journalists dubbed the chained combination, "The Green-Iron Blossom".
CLANG! CLANG! CLANG!
An unceasing cascade of blows pushed Ella into a corner, her golden golem-men absorbing into her shield one by one as the pressure mounted. Lulan's blows felt like a blacksmith's hammer, pounding her shield into a distorted mess.
Lulan changed the angle of her strike. To the audience's delight, a slice of golden metal flew from Ella's control and smashed against the vibrating wall. In desperation, Pretoria's defender let loose a shout of dismay before muttering an inaudible spell under the din of Lulan's discordant strikes.
When the Sword Mage again closed in to shave away more of her manipulated alloy, an impaling spike erupted the moment Lulu connected her blow, returning the favour.
"Lulu! Dodge it!" came the sound of her teammate's cries.
Lulan took the erupting lance without so much as a grimace, allowing it to graze her abdomen. Sparks flew as the fabric ripped, exposing her tempered abdominals. With a grunt of effort, her riposte landed, penetrating Ella's shield with an ear-grating sound of metal on metal.
"Shield Break!" The chief proctor declared with a clap of her hands. "Both of you. Well done!"
The contestants bowed, shook hands, then left the stage to the sound of thunderous applause.
"Lulu, did you see her element?!" Gwen was shaking. "Is it gold— like real gold?"
"It's a gold-alloy." Walken's Message interrupted her glee. "Did you read my notes? The regions around Johannesburg and Pretoria are inundated with rare earth minerals, precious metals and gemstones. She must have picked up a rare Earth Elemental."
"Damn it, so it's not gold?" Gwen materialised a towel for the victorious Lulan. "Here, put this on. Kusu's going to complain."
Lulan wrapped the beach towel around her shoulders. Against her tiny frame, the bath-sized fabric was just enough to cover her bruised midsection.
Next to take the stage was another member of Pretoria, the sultry vice-captain with an outrageous figure matched only by Yue. Yawning, she pointed a disinterested finger at Team Auckland.
"Alizea Kock, I'll fight two rounds. One from each of your teams. Who's first?" The sorceress' husky voice befitted her smouldering silhouette, leaving no doubt that compared to Fudan's fresh-faced lasses, she was a full-fledged woman.
Gwen focused just enough to activate her Detect Magic. Here was a Mage whose element sent her heart into bouts of palpitation. Though she had seen Wonsoo in action in Guangzhou, no further opportunities had since arisen where she could tangle with the versatility of one of the rarer quasi-elements - Ooze.
"Maka Wikiriwhi of Whitianga, here to answer your challenge!" A giant appeared on stage, emerging from a hiss of sulphur.
"Magtig, you're groot one." Alizea smirked, her clear-cobalt eyes appearing to swallow the man whole. "We're badly matched, Maka. I'd recommend someone else. Like your captain, or that fiery little bakvissie who's giving me the evil eye."
"You'll have to defeat me first." Maka stretched his arms and legs, his admirable muscles rippling across his magnificent bulk. On his face, the vivid ta moko— the tribal tattoos of the Maori people, writhed as though alive. "Come at me, bro."
"I'll be nice." Alizea Dimensioned Doored into the arena, crossing her arms under her chest. "Coming?"
Maka followed with a Blink. From the difference in their mana trails, Gwen could see that Pretoria's craft was superior.
"First Strike is all yours." Alizea stepped back. "I don't much like opening a fight, though I tend to end them."
Maka took a deep breath, then without warning, his facial expression changed. With a tremendous shout, his body expanded, his muscles tensed, his bull-neck strained, and his eyes bulged from their sockets. "Ka mate, ka mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!…" Barking war cries erupted from the Kiwi's lips, blowing away not only the audience but Alizea.
"Jislaaik!" the sorceress shirked back, half-stunned by the sudden display. "What ancient witchcraft is this?! BOB!"
Of all the audience present, it was likely that only Gwen and Auckland's team knew the meaning behind the one-warrior Haka that Maka now performed. In the Land of the Long Cloud, the Haka and the ta moko greatly enhanced a Mage's physical and mental abilities, granting the invoker resistance and courage in equal measure.
Unfortunately for Maka, "Bob", a gelatinous ooze shaped like a cube and half the size of the arena swallowed the still-shouting Kiwi. Not expecting to be outright overwhelmed, Maka was mid-stride and half-finished when he became suddenly encased in slime.
"YOU—!" Yue shouted from below the dais. "He was getting to the good part!"
Gwen wasn't sure whether to laugh, cry, or cringe.
She knew what a Haka was and still, Maka managed to make her flinch with that first "Ka ora!" For someone like Alizea, it must have felt like a sonic assault.
In the cube, Maka tried to move, to invoke a spell, to bring forth his magma. Unfortunately, all was in vain.
"Maka! Get back here!" Yue fumed, scalding the air around her body. "I'll boil this bitch's blood!"
No response came. Maka couldn't breathe, much less banter. The advantage often used by Water Mages to prevent their opponents from casting was now manifested in its unadulterated glory by Alizea the Ooze Mage.
"What a wonderful Familiar," Richard muttered under his breath, his eyes gleaming. "Beautiful."
Alizea waited for half-a-minute before releasing the coughing Maka from her jello prison. Red-faced and vomiting undigested dinner, the Kiwi rolled to one side to prevent himself from been choked to death by his ejecta. With Yue foaming at the mouth, Gwen grew terrified that the competition may see its first fatality before the matches had even begun. Pulling her friend into her arms, she held the Fire Sorceress against her chest, forcing her to calm down.
"Miss Alizea, I challenge you!" a voice rang out from behind Gwen. She turned to see a red-faced Jiro ready to rock. "Miss Bai, I dedicate this match to you!"
Gwen made a face. Elementally, Jiro wasn't a good match, though his ever-burning Firebird may yet secure a victory.
"Whatever." Alizea furrowed her brows, realising that Auckland and Fudan not only knew one another but were acquainted. If so, she would teach them a lesson. "A friendly warning though. I have the advantage. You should quit before you hurt yourself."
Jiro didn't hear a word, for the young man Blinked into the area without so much as waiting for Walken's advice.
"Idiot." Petra rolled her eyes. "Eunae?"
"Yes, Petra?" Eunae's expression grew worried.
"Get Eunae ready," Walken likewise lamented in his Message to Gwen. "Fighting an Ooze Mage in a cage? That boy's thinking with his wand."
"Contestants, BEGIN!" Chief proctor Jamison was happy so long as bodies filled the arena. "First to shield-break!"
True to their prediction, Jiro opened strong with an all-consuming barrage. To the layman observer, the Fire Mage appeared to dominate as Alizea dodged and rolled, protecting herself with blob after quivering blob of conjured Ooze-flesh. Yet, when Jiro filled the arena with fire, his expression grew increasingly disorientated until, too incoherent to control his body, he fell face-first into a pile of still-smouldering Slime. For all of Jiro's talk of overcoming hardship with guts, physiology remained an immutable barrier.
Outside, Gwen was ready with Eunae beside the stage as Alizea delivered the unconscious Fire Mage. When Jiro flopped onto Yue like a dead fish, Gwen growled dangerously, making even Yue flinch.
"May I have a match?" Her hazel eyes were almost amber with anger as she regarded the Ooze Mage. The air sparked, or at least the onlookers felt that it had.
"We may not." Alizea unsummoned her globular multitudes. "I've seen your prowess. We're not a good match up."
"Do you only fight when the Affinities align?"
"No." Alizea stood so close that the two could have touched. Refusing to give an inch, she fired back at the boisterous young sorceress of Fudan with a snark of her own. "I don't waste my energy unless I can win."
"Well said!" Magister Jamison golf-clapped. "Some would call it cowardice, but knowing your strength and weaknesses marks the true form of the expert Mage."
"Fine. Which one of you is GAME enough for a challenge?" In her wounded pride, Gwen's aura verged on oppression.
"I'm going with Eunae," Yue grumbled. Jiro had wanted to fight in her stead, meaning his humiliation belonged to her as well. Without a deathmatch, there was no way for their fire to offset Alizea's Ooze before they succumbed to her toxins. Mayhap Jiro had not possessed the purest of intentions, but he did take a bolt to the brain for her sake. "Kick their ass for me."
"May I have a match?" the voice of Pretoria's Captain filled the vox-casters. "I have heard endless praise for your prowess. Our advisor said to avoid duelling you at all costs."
Gwen stepped away from Pretoria's vice-captain, allowing the woman to pass.
"Wel gedaan," the young man intoned when his twice-victorious teammate returned, greeting her with an affirming pat. "Let's see if I measure up against the fabled Void Sorceress of Fudan. If I lose, tell the leech to step up and make himself useful."
"Good." Gwen stepped into the duelling box, materialising Ariel and Caliban as she did so, eliciting gasps from both Auckland and Pretoria. At the barrier, recalling the information Walken had provided, she paused. "Schalk, aren't you an Abjurer? I am not going to go easy, just so you know."
"Beware his Banish," Walken's voice drifted in.
"He's got a Banish loaded up," Petra warned her.
"Gwen, he's going after your pets." The third voice belonged to Whetu.
Gwen remained unfazed. Rather than wariness, she looked forward to it.
"I am what they call an all-rounder," the young man with the surname of Hertzog spoke with care. "Before we begin, hear me out. I know you're upset— you look upset. BUT— we're competitors, not enemies. Once the IIUC is over, I want us to meet as friends."
"How humble." Gwen stood with a hand against her hip. The captain's diplomacy surprised her, especially considering what Walken had said about the Purists.
"You mistake my humility." Pretoria's captain regarded Gwen with irises that were carbon copies of Petra's. Schalk was a good-looking bloke; his intense eyes reminded her of a majestic male Husky. With his straight nose, square jaws and tapered chin, he appeared to Gwen a twenty-something Alec Baldwin. Of all the teams they fought so far, Pretoria's Mages ranked high as decent-looking lads and lasses, sans Gollum von Voldemort.
"I will do my best." The captain bowed. "Shall we?"
The two moved to opposite ends of the arena.
"Mages— keep it cool, keep it clean, and keep the lethality low. You'll be touring the Front in two days." Chief proctor Jamison waited for the reporters and journalists to settle before announcing the match. "BEGIN!"
At the drop of the Magister's hand, Gwen conjured two spells in quick succession "Chakram! Ariel— Lightning Bolt!"
The crowd burst into amazement at the live demonstration of oppositional elements. As an arc, a dark disc of Void sliced toward Schalk while instantaneously, two bolts of high-tier Lightning arced toward Pretoria's captain.
"Dimension Door!" Schalk appeared and reappeared, catching Gwen on the back foot even as she commanded Caliban to ambush the man when he re-materialised from behind.
Unexpectedly, her prediction fell short. The distance Pretoria's captain had displaced was just enough to render her spells null.
"Miss Song, be careful now— Scatter Shot!"
The space in front of Gwen appeared to compress. In response, she raised her double-glazed shield. A split-second later, a hundred thudding impacts clattered against her diamond-faceted barrier, pinging off the surface.
"EE EE!" Ariel warned her that Schalk had disappeared into another Dimension Door.
"Cali, spider form as soon as he reappears!" Gwen swore as she followed suit, likewise teleporting across the duelling floor. A Banish was coming sooner or later; she had to be ready.
When her world reorientated, she painted her surroundings with a Lightning Nova, hoping to catch an unsuspecting Schalk setting up his attack.
"EE EE!" Ariel screeched.
She looked up.
Schalk was standing upside down and directly overhead through Spider Climb. The man had not teleported beside her but had readied an ambush instead. Her Divination Sigil tingled as Gwen grimaced. Compared to Tei, she wasn't an expert duellist, but were her tactics that easy to read?
"Scatter Shot! Earthen Spikes!" Pretoria's captain let loose two near-simultaneous low-tier spells at once. The execution was academic and concise, precisely as Magister Jamison had requested— crisp, clean and the lethality low.
Before she could Dimension Door again, Gwen had to open another shield. Around her came the pop and crackle of rapidly expanding crystals, followed by the sound of fracturing glass as her double-glazed barrier took damage from above and below. Had she been a sorceress lacking the VMI necessary to compress and sustain her defence, the match would have been over. For Gwen, however, she was merely inconvenienced while her shield-bubble turned opaque.
"SHAAA!" A cry from Caliban indicated that Schalk's troubles were about to begin. In its spider form, Caliban Hasted itself with Gwen's vitality, then rapidly clambered toward Pretoria's Captain on spindly legs.
With complete calm, Schalk extended both hands, then swiftly drew a series of Mandalas through the air. Less than a meter away, Caliban raised both forelegs. If the multi-talented Mage refused to raise his shield, it would skewer the man like a boerewors.
The entire exchange lasted barely five or six seconds, but it was enough.
"Banish!" Schalk completed the spell with nary a second to spare. A lesser Mage would have experienced a multi-tongued kiss to the face.
"SHAAA!" Caliban fell from the ceiling, landing as though suddenly drunk, then collapsed into its original serpent form. For Gwen, the Banish came as a blow directed against her Astral Soul, though she successfully kept her Familiar intact. Though Caliban's morphic presence grew uncertain, her beast remained fully manifested in the material realm.
"It's not banished?" cries from Pretoria's side rang out. "How can this be?"
"Extraordinary!" Magister Jamison clapped. Impressed by Schalk's ability to juggle Abjuration, Enchantment and Conjuration simultaneously, as well as by Gwen's Astral fortitude. "You too, Miss Song, that was tier 5!"
Inside the arena, Schalk Hertzog felt his back suddenly drenched in cold sweat when Gwen's barrier shield dropped. Banish took a great deal of concentration, and he was counting on Gwen's disorientation to offset his spell-fatigue.
"You almost had me there," came the girl's icy voice from below. "Flash Bang!"
A star was born, manifesting so rapidly that his shield barely had time to solidify before his senses were momentarily overwhelmed. Reflexively, Schalk Dimension Doored to safety.
BUNG! Came a second flash of light and sound, jarring his innards. Schalk wanted to spew; if he had possessed a softer element like Alizea's Ooze, he could have repressed the spell's potency. As a Mineral Mage, however, the vibrations shook his brain even as the refracting light made his diamond-shield iridescent.
A role-reversal, Schalk noted. The girl was as spiteful as a manticore.
Gwen had yet to use Walken's Thundering Shatter on anyone other than Petra during practice, but the close call with Caliban had exacerbated her foul mood. As Ariel manifested the spell at a distance, a rolling, tile-displacing, glass-vibrating clamour rumbled through the shaking duelling box.
"REMOVE THE TOP BARRIER—" Magister Jamison warned the technical team. "NOW!"
Outside, the guests' jubilant expressions paled as some realised the Wall of Force might not hold against a spell especially designed to disrupt single-pane barriers. Inside, Gwen came to realise she had miscalculated Ariel's firepower, particularly that there was no IFF for sonic damage.
"Idiot girl!" Outside, an ashen Walken despaired. Anything from Lightning Bolt to Ball Lightning could have cracked the boy's shield— why Thundering Shatter? The spell was infamously destructive without her Essence, and now with the girl's tier 7 Affinity combined with her Kirin, the spell's magnitude had grown beyond compare.
CRACK! A fulmination so turbulent as to mirror the heavens splitting in twain filled the interior of the duelling area. Where Schalk had cloistered himself in a diamond-like shield, the sound of sheet-glass shattering punctuated the din. For an elongated second, the shrill whine of portable force-generators screamed like strangled cats. A spluttering fart followed, after which the devices burst into bright plumes of fizzling mana.
Walken despaired. Like all good spells, there remained a second-stage manifestation.
Just when the guests thought the worst was over, the low rumble built into a shrill-shriek akin to ceramic scratched over a chalkboard, amplified to liquefy one's soul.
Crystalware sourced from Elven artisans, having been in the Astoria's collections for decades, exploded into fine powder as goblets and pitches cracked and crumbled. Not far from where the courtyard housed the duel, multi-storey sheet-glass split into splendiferous hues, catching the shocked faces of the journalists, the proctors, and the contestants.
Stunned by the power of her magic, Gwen felt her soul grow sore, thinking of the crystal compensation soon to follow. Even now, the liqueur covered guests and the proud staff of the historic Astoria painted her lonesome figure with death glares.
"M-My recorder!" a journalist wailed when his vision turned kaleidoscopic.
"Shaa Shaa!" Caliban menaced the unmoving captain, ready for round two, heedless of the crowd.
"EE! EEE!" Ariel looked to Gwen, expecting praise for its brilliant assault.
Pretoria's captain laid very still on the floor, blinded and deafened and knowing that it was far better to remain prone than to expel his dinner.
Upon the dais, Magister Jamison took a deep breath. Had she not disabled the top-most portion of the force field, she wondered if Schalk Hertzog would have turned to jelly.
A slow clamour began to grow from the thong of guests below. Some were understandably upset. Others were applauding, while here and there, people took the unfortunate event to be a tale told and retold weeks and years from now. "I was there!" they would say. "When the Astoria had to be restored! Again!"
"LOSS, Gwen Song!" Magister Jamison growled. "For excessive force and excessive injury and collateral damage. You're worse than an acolyte, girl! Learn some control! Come here."
While Pretoria's team attended to their victorious captain, Gwen sheepishly walked toward the Magister with her Familiars in tow.
"Give the crowd a few minutes to settle, then issue an apology." The chief proctor's eyes searched Gwen's face for the slightest hint of insubordination.
"Girl. Do you have enough crystals to pay for the damage?"
Gwen appeared on the verge of agony.
The Magister snorted. Silly girl, stupid is as stupid does, she critiqued sympathetically. At this rate, the girl may be paying off the debt even after her graduation.
"That's it for the duels then." The chief proctor scanned the ruined party, her ageless face wrinkled by the stress brought on by the unruly sorceress. "A friendly bit of advice. Kiss and make up with Pretoria if you can. Urban warfare isn't going to be a Quest Fudan wants to do alone."
"Ha! Suffer in ya jocks!" Yue slammed the beer before crushing the can. "NEXT!"
"I yield," slurred the Lightning Mage from Pretoria, a teal-eyed youth who had challenged her to a beer-drinking contest. "For such a tiny meisie, where do you pack all that booze?"
All eyes fell toward Yue's low-cut top; many inquisitive minds reached the same conclusion.
After the duels were suspended, Fudan's vice-captain invited both teams to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant to experience "xiao ye" or midnight-supper.
For Auckland's Mages, the famous Beggar Chicken reminded them of "Hāngi" feasts. Meanwhile, Pretoria's members blew Gwen's mind when they took to eating liver, fatty intestine, and even chicken feet without batting an eye.
After two-dozen dishes populated the table, the Tsingtao began to flow in earnest.
"Oi! What are you staring at, you wanna go?" Yue barked at the shadow lurking not far from Gwen. For a while now, the last member of Pretoria had grated her nerves. Gwen begged a good oogling, but that was no reason to undress her with his eyes.
"Don't mind him." Schalk opened a can and passed the ice-cold beverage down the table. "Jean-Paul isn't used to public spaces or people. Isn't that right, Jean-Paul?"
Hearing his name, the creature known as Jean-Paul appeared to shrink into his chair.
"Say something, Jean-Paul," Alizea demanded from across the table. "Don't play the mute. We know you can talk."
The rest of Pretoria laughed, a few from Auckland and Fudan joined the mirth.
Jean-Paul opened his mouth to speak, though no sound emerged. His pallid face was already a deep scarlet, and now he looked on the verge of asphyxiation.
Across the long table, Gwen sat transfixed, likewise glancing at Jean-Paul. More so than the others, it was Gwen's undivided attention that made the man with a face no mother could love squirm.
Yue scoffed. So what if the cockroach was a Void Mage? Who could match her friend's prodigious talent? Certainly not a hairless Water Ghost.
"No matter, three CHEERs to our success on the Front! May our adventure be sweet-as!" Rona, Auckland's captain, stood on his seat to raise a toast. Like Yue, the man could drink like a fish. "Just as the headiest foam rises to the top, may the best team emerge the victor!"
Foaming cans and bottles clinked across the air. Until the beer ran dry, no contestant wanted to recall that in less than forty-eight hours, they would no longer be in a city of twenty-million living souls, but knee-deep in the Undead.