Once Gwen's scream-queen antics died down, she asked for Jean-Paul's forgiveness. The maggot was a leech, the Void Mage explained, and though Gwen felt no better about the pallid white slug, she conceded her mistake.
"Who is your teacher, Jean-Paul?" Gwen asked, hugging Caliban's bruised body to her chest. Earlier, she had applied enough force to feel its carapace crack, though returning its meal was no longer a possibility. Thankfully, the cadaver belonged to a monster Jean-Paul had exterminated, one that possessed the guise of a man but was very much a menace.
Once her nerves settled, she returned to the topic of their mutual magic. "You know, I've been picking at this Void thing largely on my own thus far. Can we exchange some notes?"
"I'd be delighted to. My Master is Meister Bekker of London Imperial," Jean-Paul name-dropped without batting an eye.
Opposite, Gwen's eyes had gone glassy. London Imperial was on par with Cambridge, sans the spotless reputation. And a Meister as a master was an incredible boon.
"Jean-Paul, When did you Awaken?"
"Twelve or so?"
"And you've followed a Meister for how long?"
"Almost a decade…" Jean-Paul confessed with great solemnity. "I've still got lots to learn, Mevrou Bekker has very high expectations."
Gwen's chest ached. She felt as though a scab had been rent from an old wound. To think that were it not for Sobel, she could now announce to Jean-Paul that her instructor was the great Henry Kilroy, co-founder of the Towers, Master of the Ten.
"Are you alright?" Jean-Paul leaned back when her complexion blanched.
"I am fine…"
Desiring a distraction, she re-steered the topic onto Spellcraft.
According to what Jean-Paul was willing to let on, each Void Mage of note— meaning the ones that survived, invariably possessed the means to restore their vitality. The few that Jean-Paul had met in London who lacked this critical talent and had no other option but to subsist on potion infusions and Positive Energy. As a result, their bodies invariably developed immunities or reached alchemical limits, after which they either lived as a squib or perished.
"Our creatures manifest their absorption in different ways," Jean-Paul proceeded with great patience. "For example, Magister Wen's papers stated that you can absorb traits from Caliban's Consume, correct?"
"There's a limit." Gwen felt her face growing hot when she realised that soon, her talent would become public knowledge. But then again, all she had to hawk in her early days was herself. "And… debilitating side effects."
"Well, for Umzokwe," her fellow announced. "My Spirit picks up bits and pieces belonging to creatures it consumes. Sometimes, I can recall old memories or strong emotions or particular knowledge. When I was a child, the empathy was enough to drive me half-mad, but I've since trained to resist its effects."
"Wow." Gwen's lips parted. "That is an amazing talent."
"So, what does Caliban do?"
Gwen felt guilty that she couldn't tell her new friend the truth. What was she to say? That she grew drunk on the ecstasy of Caliban ingesting her foes? That sans her humanity, she could be the second coming of the Sorceror Supreme? What would Jean-Paul think?
"He eats stuff and sends me the life-force," Gwen said. "Sometimes, I receive too much vitality, and I can't move."
"Ah, bio-feedback. Yes, it happens to me as well." Jean-Paul replied. "I have an Augmentation to manage that."
"Ja." Jean-Paul's expression grew hesitant and indecisive. "And Transmutations to use Umzokwe as a storage unit."
"That's WONDERFUL!" her pitch rose an octave. Storage? Caliban storage? How many goods could Caliban stow if a Caliban did stow goods? "Look, I've got CCs…"
"I am afraid we don't publish our spells to the Tower's Grimoire," Jean-Paul apologised. "Master's work is far from finished."
"Oh." Gwen lowered her hands.
"The Mevrou and I devised several tiers of Void-specific spells in the past decade. You'll see them in action during the competition." Jean-Paul's words scratched at her chest like a cat. "Familiar invocations as well, BUT to learn them— well— she gave instructions, that is…"
"Er, the Mevrou—" Jean-Paul momentarily transformed into a human beetroot. He couldn't look her in the eyes. "That is—you and I could—do...?"
This time, it was Gwen who grew concerned. Still clutching Caliban, she leaned in so that her face was a few inches from Jean-Paul's sweat-soaked brow. "Are you alright?"
"Shaa!" Caliban nudged Gwen's chin with its forehead. Umzokwe replied in kind, sending her leaning back the other way.
Jean-Paul stammered painfully. "I—I am hot."
"Hot?" Gwen felt perfectly comfy in the cold. "It's single digits out there. Surely we're both immune to mundane illnesses?"
"I should go." Jean-Paul suddenly stood, sweating buckets. "See you at the Front, Miss Song."
"Wait…" Gwen reached out and took the Void Mage's arm. She wanted to hear more about these spells, at least what they did, how they functioned, what Schools they drew upon.
Jean-Paul retracted his wrist, wincing as his slimy skin slipped through her hand.
"Shit— sorry." Her face flashing white and red, she had applied a little too much strength. "I didn't mean that."
Jean-Paul paused, nursing his fingers. His lips looked as though he wanted to say something, but his grimace suggested that an Umzokwe was stuck in his throat. "W—We'll talk after the match in Dalian. Please bear witness to my master's spells."
"Shaa, shaa!" Caliban waved goodbye as Umzokwe dematerialised.
Gwen felt a wave of disappointment as Jean-Paul's gangly silhouette beat a hasty retreat. She wondered what it was that Umzokwe's master was loathed to say. Maybe, Gwen realised with a snap of her forefingers, cursing her stupidity, the Apprentice was under a Geas!
Dairen in Russian.
Ryo-jun in Japanese.
Port Arthur as mapped by the Mageocracy.
Some called it the Pearl of Liaoning, others the City of Traitors. To traders, it was the Treasure Port. Now, for all intents and purposes, it was a fortress city holding the Undead Front.
Before the Undead threat altered the metropolis, Dalian was a cosmopolitan city. The earliest buildings in its settlement were built by the Russians. In the sixth century, the late Tang Dynasty developed the region into a township. Fourteen centuries later, following the Sino occupation, the British transformed Dalian into an international port servicing trade between Korea, China, Russia and Japan.
Today, Dalian remains the most important logistical centre on the North Front. The city itself lay fifty kilometres from Manchuria proper. The peninsulas are joined by a stretch of granite no more than four kilometres in width, forming a natural chokepoint. To further offset the threat of the Undead, its natural landbridge had been transmuted by a strategic-class Mandala, capable of severing Dalian from the mainland.
Presently, the population of Dalian ebbed and flowed between a resident population of four million, discounting its occupational force. Of the Divisions stationed in its many ports and military encampments, the bulk of the NoM Troops belonged to the 70th to 98th Quasi-Magical Infantry Division. Additionally, rotations of specialised Divisions augmented the standing troops, such as the 206th Long-Range Sorcery Regiment, the 207th and 209th Magi-tech Armoured Regiment and finally the 4th, 7th, and 19th Aerial Recon.
Of particular note was the poster child of the Front, the 1st Force-Recon Aerial Division, the very same that in the mid-90s, gifted the nation with the Hero of the Northern Font, Captain Jun Song.
Lieutenant General Liang Chu-Rong surveyed the young Mages arriving below as they lined up in the courtyard. Visually, the young men and women from tier 1 capitals were unimpressive. Undisciplined and full of curiosity, some meandered, others chit-chatted, while scores of them left the confinement yard to spy on the city from the Tower's lower battlements.
Yet, despite his disgruntlement, the General stood ramrod straight. For the first time in as long as he could recall, China had the home ground in an international Spellcraft competition. Win or lose, the mere fact that red-blooded sons and daughters of Mao made the team from Fudan was enough to made his soldiers hold their heads higher.
"How long until they get here?" Liang turned to the chief proctor standing beside him. He wasn't used to dealing with women of rank, much less an American Magister with a complexion the colour of caramel. In his opinion, the sooner these Gweilos left his Tower, the sooner he could get on with the operation to reclaim Shenyang. When no reply came, he added a grudging "Magister Jamison."
For the students' reception and briefing, he had chosen the operations auditorium. In the middle of the spacious, oval chamber was an American-made terrain-visualiser, a transmutation-based device capable of rendering landscape by tapping into buried Divi-probes. In times of war, it provided real-time battlefield information. In quieter times, it served to instruct strategy and tactics.
"Give them a moment, General," Jamison said. "They're young. Translocation disorientation isn't so readily shrugged off."
Liang nodded. Given Jamison's deceptive youth, he got the impression that anytime, an older Magister might find his way to the auditorium to berate his Apprentice.
A quarter of an hour later, the contestants arrived. In the front row was Fudan, their eager faces captured by the CCVC-1 crew and their cameras. Behind the home team, flanking left and right, sat Pretoria and Auckland.
"Students, welcome to Dalian. I assume you are acquainted with Magister Jamison. As you are here, I shall now proceed with your Quest. For the second IIUC round, you have been invited to participate in the Great Purge of Shanyang. This operation will involve twenty Quasi-magical NoM Divisions, ten Mage Flights, including yourself, as well as artillery and Golem support from the 206th and 209th. Your Quest, taking into account your inexperience in large-scale military operations, will be as auxiliary units. Magister?"
As Liang spoke, the sand map on the central dais changed until it transformed into a diorama of the local terrain from Dalian to Shenyang.
"Your teams will split into two Flights. For CCs, you will be assigned field objective as the reclamation progresses. Roles are split into offence and defence. The offensive team will accompany the PLA Mage Flights clearing a beachhead outside Shenyang, establishing Forward Operation Bases in Dengta, Shili, and Shahe. The second party will defend these FOBs, among other tasks."
"From Dalian to Shenyang is five hundred kilometres, which we hope to clear in one week. The FOBs will be established by Combat Engineers. Until the NoM Divisions arrive, your teams' first task is to hold the ground. Once our FOBs are up and running, each of the defensive teams will activate the Shielding Beacon and count down to the Tower's arrival. Before this occurs, expect an endless swarm of Undead. Once the Dalian Tower arrives, defenders will help with the establishment of safe zones, triage centres, field Teleportation Circles and supply depots. During this process, the attacking party will push into Shengyang as hunter-killer units. Your task is to root out Necromancers and obliterate Undead nerve centres. Your Chief Proctor will explain."
Magister Jamison thanked the General.
"To surmise, there are two stages to the operation of interest to you." Jamison surveyed the students' youthful faces, though some of the Maori Mages had beards that would have made her father proud. "For the attacking party, Stage ONE involves clearing Undead units and establishing an operations area. Stage TWO, post the Tower's arrival, involves street fighting, as the PLA will be bombarding Shenyang beforehand to soften your targets. For the defending party, Stage ONE involves supporting our NoM Divisions as they make their way to each of the objectives. Stage TWO will involve repelling what is effectively an Undead Beast Tide with the support of Dalian Tower."
"Operation timeframes are listed in your briefings. Remember that you are an auxiliary unit. You are not formally a part of the PLA's military estimates. If you strike too deep or get yourself into trouble, there will not be an Armoured Division risking their equipment and lives to pull you out. Just as well, you are welcome to forfeit your match anytime. The operation will continue, with, or without your contribution, though you have General Liang's word that the PLA shall generously reward battlefield valour."
Her eyes inspected the students.
"If you lack cold-weather equipment." Jamison glanced at Gwen, who wore one of her figure-hugging dresses, and toward the tattooed Maoris. "General Liang's quartermaster has opened his stalls. Additionally, detoxification potions and Restoration potions have been made available to you. Let me warn you that the Front's frost is no common cold. The Negative Energy inundating the region has warped the weather, not to mention flora and fauna, all of which will sap your life force."
"Expect about -10°C at night," the General added helpfully. "Read your debriefing carefully and learn from your assigned advisors. Remember, any source of heat naturally draws wandering Undead."
The contestants had many, but none the Lieutenant General likely had the patience to answer.
"Good, I look forward to debriefing all of you again in Shenyang. Dismissed!"
With the General and his staff gone, the students crowded around the diorama display.
"Yue, what do you think?" Rona, the captain of Auckland, peeked just over the table. "Whetu, if you will?"
Whetu made a stool for his captain.
Yue eyed the map of the Dalian peninsula, then zoomed the transforming landscape in and out to get a better gander at the terrain.
"Yunnie, you know how to use this thing?" Gwen marvelled that Yue was punching the Glyphs without a glance.
"Worked with a few before," Yue hinted at her training under Alesia. "To be honest, I think the defending teams have the hardest job. Between Jinzhou and Bayuquan are tablelands, so we can see the Undead coming. But from Guizhou to Anshan, it's a hundred kilometres through hilly and mountainous terrain— also known as Ambush Central. After that, its open tundra for another hundred-and-fifty until we hit Shenyang. If it gets THAT cold, the ground's either ice, snow, or hard soil."
"Ma'am." Schalk turned to Magister Jamison contemplatively. "Can members of offence and defence switch sides during the mission's phases?"
"You may not." Jamison shook her head. "However, inter-party exchange for members lost in combat is acceptable. Note that until the FOB's Teleportation Circle is established— or until the Tower arrives, staff swapping would be impossible. Until logistics catch up, the attacking teams will be at the mercy of the Undead."
The contestant's gazes returned to the table.
"The proctors and I will be performing final equipment checks before you leave," Magister Jamison informed them. "For this mission, I would like to offer a spot of advice…"
The contestants listened.
"Considering the nature of your battles ahead, I'll allow you to keep illicit items in your rings. If you use one, there will be stiff CC penalties, possibly even disqualification. However, you may save a life, whether yours or another's or scores of others. Remember that the IIUC, auspicious as it may be, is only a competition. You have to live to be a hero. Don't let your 'pride' or your 'nationalism' get in the way of growing up to be Maguses and Magisters that can contribute to our future prosperity."
"Yes, Ma'am!" The students bowed their heads.
"I'll be downstairs with the other proctors, we're lending the PLA use of our Divi-Engines as a part of our agreement. If you have concerns, feel free to Message my device or one of my peers."
The Magister and her assistants filed out.
"Where's Walken?" Gwen looked around. "I don't see Petra either."
"Getting permission for deploying your Planar Ally." Richard joined her side. "Time's tight, and we had to split the party. So, are you going to see Percy?"
"I really should, I haven't seen him in months." A nostalgic smile touched Gwen's lips. "I wonder how he's getting along as a cadet."
"Let's get on with it then." Richard returned to the map. "Captain?"
Gwen's eyes swept over the diorama. Though her soul ached for Percy's boyish countenance, tactical decisions had to be finalised.
As expected, Pretoria was the first to sort itself. With an all-star cast, their splitting the party was of little concern.
On the offensive were Jean-Paul, Captain Schalk, Lencho, one of the Lightning Mages; Izetta the Heale, and their Diviner, an ash-blonde girl called Helia. Pretoria's defensive team was lead by their vice-captain, Alizea, their other Lightning Mage, Mariete; Ella the gold Mage, and finally Pieter the Ice Transmuter and Aldus the Illusionist.
Comparatively, Auckland's assignment was less balanced. Their offensive team included Yue, Whetu as defence, then Rongo the Water Evoker. They were joined by Timoti the Magma Mage and Opi, the ta moko Enchanter. The Kiwi's defending team included the other Magma brother, Maka, their captain, their mobile Abjurer Otikoro, the sand Mage Tua, and Ruihi, the second inscriber. Comparatively, Auckland's defence was low on damage dealers compared to Pretoria.
As for Gwen's team, she allowed the assignment to fall to Tei, who possessed experience fighting the Undead. He assigned her and Richard to the offensive team together with Lulan, Mayuree and Eunae as support. He was confident that Gwen's VMI, combined with Golos, could clear the field, and that with Eunae, Caliban may also employ its Big Bird form. For defence, Tei assigned himself, Jiro for his Fire Walls, Petra for her versatility, and Rene and Anita to protect the soldiers under their charge. When Gwen asked if the defenders needed healers, Magister Jamison advised that NoM regiments already had assigned Clerics.
All that was left then was inventory, then getting to know the PLA unit to whom they would be assigned.
Once Gwen and the others returned to the courtyard, they were greeted by Petra and Walken. In front of the gathered crowd who had come out to gawk at her cousin, Gwen dropped a small fortune onto the magic circle, eliciting gasps from the soldiers and contestants alike.
"Planar Ally!" The HDMs blazed as her invocation flared, burning the equivalent of many a Magus' salaries in the span of a dozen seconds. Despite the recent hit to her capital, conjuring Golos across time and space from his rented bachelor pad in Burma to Dalian costed far less his previous, continent-spanning journey.
Moments later, the clear sky fulminated. A retina-searing rod of lightning engendered, birthing the Thunder Wyvern. When Gwen and her Ally had last parted, Golos was injured and bloody. Now, it appeared larger, spikier, and meaner than its pre-Da-peng self.
"Calamity." Golos snorted, stretching its neck with a crack.
"Gogo. How is Phelara?"
"Heavy with eggs." Golos grinned before surveying their surroundings, its nostrils flaring. "I smell death."
"We're going to be fighting the Undead in the north." She pointed to the south with a vast and expansive sweep of her arms. "Princeling, Welcome to the Northern Front."
Richard redirected his cousin's finger until it pointed the right way. On this trip, Mayuree would be doing the orienteering. If they were to follow Gwen's sense of direction, Beijing's defence barrier might activate.
"Any word from Ruxin?"
"He said to speak to him after your match. Negotiations with the humans in their Towers are ongoing… also, what's with all these bodies? I prefer Mermen, fat ones, not primates."
"They're our comrades, Gogo, have some respect." Gwen turned to her audience. "Everyone, this is Golos, my Planar Ally, he's a Thunder Wyvern and a patriot from Huangshan. He'll be helping us out with the Undead... You may applaud now."
The stunned troops began to clap. First a few, then a dozen, then a thunderous clamour as what was likely a thousand or more people banged their perspiring palms together. Having never experienced applause, Golos appeared almost coy.
"Not much to eat if we're fighting desecrators," Golos grumbled even as he kept his neck elegantly elevated, bathing in the praise. "What's good around here?"
"Ha! I knew you'd say that. I've prepared all kinds of interesting dishes," Gwen promised. "You might want to eat in your human form, though. You hungry?"
"Now?" Golos licked its chops, its evil eyes browsing the two-legged meals standing from horizon to horizon. "Sure. Long distances make me hungry."
Gwen looked toward Tei, who inclined his head. To secure a supply of vitality for herself and to ensure an undistracted Golos, the House of M had given her containers of Wildland food-stuffs. If Golos had to eat meal-rations, he'd be a Draconic-menace.
"Alright." Gwen eyed Golos' flail-tail as it wagged. The spikes had since regrown thicker and larger. "Did you bring pants?"
"I did." Ever since Gwen introduced her Wyvern to underwear, Golos' jeans no longer chafed.
"Good." She patted the Wyvern on the knees. Since the Da-peng affair, Golos had calmed somewhat. If she had to guess, likely Ruxin had a stern word, and Phelara had sponged his bottled energies somewhat. "Let me introduce you to the other folks before we eat— also, have you met my brother?"
Percy Song had kept himself busy.
Thanks to Guo's connections, Percy had entered military service as an officer cadet. According to his grandfather, the Front was a rite of passage for the power-progeny of the PLA. There, the PLA's future officers taste the dangers of the Front while sheltering behind their seniors. After a three-month stint, the cadets would receive certificates and medals, all of which would legitimise their bid for Peking or Jiantong University.
The ordeal was supposed to be a cakewalk. BUT— with his sister's fame breathing down his neck, Percy was intent on proving his mettle. Much to the surprise of his instructors, he succeeded, demonstrating a battle-sense that delighted his babysitter, Major Chang.
After four weeks of light skirmishes with low-tier Undead including Zombies and Ghouls, Percy quickly acquired a taste for laying waste to waves of shambling corpses. Armed with light recon-armour and boots of flying, he and his friends devastated the shamblers below. In contrast to Chou, his party's Air Evoker, or even Lu or Mei's Lightning, his Salt proved leagues more effective in halting the walking dead.
According to their instructor, Salt was a natural ward as proven by the fact that the hordes avoided the sea. When Percy grew sceptical, his mirthful instructor revealed that it was because Salt, a Negative sub-type, disabled the Negative life-force of undead automatons.
"Beware higher-tier undead," Major Chang warned in turn. "Creatures powerful enough to generate Cores— or are risen using the Core of a higher-tier being, aren't easily rebuffed."
But Percy knew there was another reason why the swarms they faced proved such easy prey.
It was the Kirin Amulet.
No wonder his uncle was the Hero of the Front.
Though dormant, he could feel the stone feeding off the creatures he destroyed, especially the Undead. Limbs crushed by his Salt ceased their provocations, heads snapped off no longer chattered. With enough Undead by his side, his vitality hardly fell. Even when they had encountered a Revenant— a risen Mage turned by the Necromancers in Shenyang, Percy still slew the horror. His feat had been celebrated, for he had accomplished a task marked for Senior Mages.
"So, where's sister Gwen?" Mei paced back and forth in the barracks, looking as though a Corpse Worm was digging through her guts. As students, there were limits to their freedom on a military base. "She said she would visit, right?"
"She'll be here soon," Percy assured his companion. "Didn't you hear the thunder? That's her, I bet. Summoning her Wyvern."
"A Thunder Wyvern!" Mei gushed. "I want to touch it!"
"Sure," Percy promised, though he was a little unsure if his sister had a tight leash on the monster.
"This is Cadet Percy Song," he answered his Message device. "Your orders, Sir?"
"Percy, you're requested at the Tower's mess. You've been given permission to dine there. Your sister has arranged a buffet."
"She has?" Percy raised a brow, confused by the news.
"You and Cadet Yang are relieved until curfew." Major Chang's voice had a touch of saltiness to it. "Tell Miss Song I wish her fair fortunes... and remember— Miss Li's autograph."
"Right." Percy looked to Mei. "Looks like Sis' shouting us food."
When Percy and Mei walked into the officer's mess, they were astounded by the volume the cooks had prepared. Not only were the portions gigantic, but fabled dishes like whole-coasted Wildland Goat, Thistle-boar Ham, plates of steamed Dagger-fin Arrowfish, Rock Clams, and Crystal Prawns spilt across the stainless steel tables.
Percy saw his sister standing among the crowd, a head taller as usual and as eye-catching as ever. "Gwen—!"
"SIS!" Mei bolted from Percy's side. "I've missed you so much!"
The girls awkwardly embraced, with Mei charging into Gwen's arms, eyes full of stars. "I saw all your matches! It was wonderful! I re-watched them a dozen times! Where's Ariel? Where's your Wyvern?!"
Wordlessly, his sister indicated to the right, where a topless white giant with silver hair and horns was eating with both hands. Presently, Golos was crunching through an Iron Shell Crayfish as though it were crispy rice crackers.
"That's the Wyvern?!"
"Yes," Gwen said. "That's Golos. Princeling of Huangshan."
Having deflected his girlfriend's enthusiasm, his sister beckoned for Percy.
When he approached, Gwen enveloped him like an octopus.
"Please don't…" Percy squirmed in her vice-like arms, one cheek pressed against her shoulder as she picked him off his feet. "People are staring."
Indeed, people were watching— all twenty-nine contestants, a few proctors, a dozen officers and the staff had all switched from ogling at Golos to gawking at the sibling's public display of affection.
"This is my brother, Percy." Gwen held on for what seemed like an eternity, then turned to the crowd. "Percy, say hi to everyone."
"Greetings, I am Percy Song." Percy bowed from the waist, feeling the weight of their judging eyes. With unmoving and involuntary expressions, the contestants nodded back, a few others said, "Hello".
"You've grown, squirt," A girl Percy recognised anywhere walked around him, scowling now that he was the taller of the two "Not bad. Still got a bit to go before you catch up to Gwen though."
"I am trying," Percy returned Yue's jab. "Miss Bai, I see you've remained largely the same size."
"I've grown in other ways."
Percy's already flushed cheeks took on an additional layer of colour. He looked away as Yue jiggled her brows, cackling like a witch.
Next, his sister brought him vis-a-vis with Golos. Percy had seen the Wyvern on the vid-casts, though now that the beast was a biting distance away, his skin crawled.
"Gogo, this is my kin." Gwen presented him as though her favourite puppy. "Say hello."
A crab claw paused mid-delivery. Golos glared at Percy with an icy look, then grunted, emitting a sound like low thunder.
"Calamity, he's no kin of mine." Golos crushed the claw with one hand to extract the meat. "Your brother's scent is all wrong. I don't like him."
Well, fuck you too, lizard. Percy said silently. On the surface, he kept up his awkward smile.
"Too bad," his sister fired back. "Just showing you who he is so you don't EVER harm him by accident."
"Boy, you stink to high heaven." Golos' voice reverberated in his head. "Calamity, what is he supposed to be? He's spoiling my appetite."
"He's a Salt Mage."
"Wer isthasy di vi Calamity ui stil vi Calamitas." When Golos replied in Draconic, Dragon-fear assailed Percy's trembling chest.
"Just eat your food." Gwen dismissed the Wyvern, then pulled Percy away. "Remember, no harming my brother. Now or in the future. I'll hold you to that."
"A fool's sentiment—" came a reply from Golos that made Percy's skin crawl. "Why—"
"HELLO!" Their banter was interrupted by the sprightly sound of Mei greeting Golos with a bow. "Sir Golos, is it true that you are descended from a mythical dragon?"
Golos burped. Percy could see its reptilian eyes measuring Mei from the tip of her hair to her toes. Surely the Wyvern wastn't interested in Mei? He grew uncertain. His sister was right beside him. If anything, in terms of looks, power and charisma, wasn't his sister the superior partner by far?
"Begone, skinny peasant," the Wyvern's steely voice berated the starry-eyed Mei. "Unless you're a fat, juicy eel-kin, I don't have the appetite to spare."
Under his military-issue singlet, the Kirin Pendant hummed.
Lieutenant General Liang watched from the Tower's vid-casters the final muster of the recon force.
Together with the students, each Aerial Mage Flight consisted of three Wings of five Mages each, forming independent battlegroups. Behind the Recon-Flights were five Units comprised of Engineers, the Artillery unit, and the FOB Intelligence Unit. Row by row, they each appeared ready to give their all for the CCP.
Of the three rows of students, it was Fudan that stood out the most. Where every other university stood to attention, Fudan's line was disrupted by a meandering Wyvern sniffing the place and scaling the walls, harassing the troops. Above, a Kirin loitered, distracting his men. Compared to their host, the platoon of stoic giants beside them, as well as the primly uniformed Gweilos on the left, were far more disciplined.
What additionally made the General's complexion burn was Fudan's armour, which he recognised as the Shen-Teī garb from Sinomach. The design, however, was nothing like the variant his troops employed. For the men at least, he saw a resemblance, but for the women, the stylised bodysuits were unnecessarily distracting.
Comparatively, Pretoria's team wore equipment specialised to their individual roles. The defenders, including their captain, wore booster-plates made by Armscor, a South African arms consortium. The other members likewise sported protection closer to their given roles, with Enchanted monster-leathers for the controllers and damage dealers, and reinforced fabric for the Diviner, the Illusionist and the Cleric. Moreover, despite the different designs, Pretoria's equipment uniformly comprised of shades of green and blue, crisscrossed with red, white and black highlights.
As for Auckland, the giants wore singlets even in the blistering cold of winter. More than likely, Liang guessed, the Maori's resistances were tied to their vivid tattoos. To credit his hypothesis, even the expatriate member of Auckland's team, Yue Bai, had been inscribed from chin to ankle.
The General frowned.
"What designation are those?" Liang pointed to the prints on Fudan's armour.
"The Lieutenant must inform the general that those are not Division inscriptions, Sir!" a lieutenant hollered. "They appear to be Fudan's sponsors, Sir!"
The Scryed vid-cast moved closer.
Such inscriptions were expected, but on the armoured plating riveted to the students' thighs, he saw an embossed golden "W" and a stylised "Centurion" in matt-black. There was also the Tonglv project's letterhead, as well as SinoTrans, SAIC Motors and finally, a very familiar logo.
"Mao-tai?" the general spluttered, feeling faint.
"Yessir." the lieutenant knew the General was fond of the nation's most expensive liqueur. What he didn't realise was that presently, ten thousand Mud-grass Horses trampled his CO's chest.
"Let's hope—" the General remarked as the advanced party took to the air. Below, the NoM Division filed into their mix-terrain carriers, each man nursing their weapon, wrapped up to the neck in quasi-magical cloth armour. If the battle went well, more than three-quarters of his troops should return. Should the operation be a failure, then all Liang could do was offer up his lapels, and hope Central wouldn't ask for his head as well.