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A note from Wutosama

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Expect some typos, I had to spend last night and tonight saving a lost dog... 
Thanks in advance! 

Lieutenant General Liang Chu-Rong very carefully read the recommendation placed in front of him by the IIUC Sino-Committee.

He looked up.

"You had this ready, when?"

"That's a need to know... Look, I wouldn't worry, what's the worst-case scenario? One sorceress?" Magister Eric Walken, Fudan's advisor, carefully explained. "If the Planar Ally works— all's well, ends well. If not, you are neither liable nor is your task any more difficult."

"And this… Shoe Goliath," the Lieutenant-General pronounced the unfamiliar word.

"Shoggoth," Walken intonated helpfully.

"What is it?"

"Nobody rightly knows." Walken's eyes were sparkling. "Why do you think there's so much interest? Our lack of knowledge is precisely why we want it manifested away from human cities and in a place full of potential targets."

"And… what is Yog-Sothoth?" Liang felt his skin crawl.

"We believe it's an intelligent entity that resides in the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Void. The girl once said that 'Yog' is the gate and the way, the origin of the Void things that lurk in the dark of space and time. Yes, she's got a talent for the theatrical."

The commander of Dalian's Tower grunted, clearly disliking this talk of theatre.

"And this Shub-Niggurath?"

"The mother, I suppose, of all Void beings. The lass says she's a planar goat of sorts. I'd put it as the overimaginative mind of a girl-child."

"… and you expect me to believe this?"

"Do you expect ME to believe this in your stead?" Walken shrugged. "General, we know intelligent Spirits exist in every Elemental Plane. If so, why not the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Void? I don't know if the girl dreamed up these names or if they really exist, but we all know that what the will makes, the magic manifests. We're not High Elves, you know, we're still knocking on the front door of Spellcraft and asking to be let in. For now, what really matters is the practicality of this thing she's dreamed up. Gwen has never touched Faith Magic. I believe it is safe to assume this is a 'being' inside the Void, no different to Salamanders or Undines or Sylphs."

"And Shenyang shall prove if this Shoggoth is benevolent or malevolent?"

"Where better?" Walken pointed to a scaled model of the city and its surrounding troop movements.

In the decades since its fall, much of Shenyang's exterior settlements had decayed to nothing. What remained were ruins of the old CBD marked by a harrowing expanse of concrete four kilometres in diameter, encircled by a crumbling orbital highway.

As the oldest of China's satellite Frontiers, Shenyang had been the antiquity provincial capital of Liaoning before being subsumed into China's Dynastic expansions. It was initially founded by the neolithic Xinle, a group of nomadic Demi-humans who took advantage of the Hunhe River's spring passage through the valley. During the Han Dynasty, the middle-folk took, then rebuilt Shenyang into a northern wonder of commerce, only for to it be razed by the Demi-human Empire of Liao. During the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese retook Shenyang and rebuilt it again as a fortress city. A mere century later, the Centaurs returned, transforming Shenyang into the "Rising Sun on the Hill"— the new capital of a Demi-human Empire.

Shenyang's ownership was thus a revolving game of hopscotch, each time devastating the city in unimaginable ways. From Centaurs to the Qing, then a short stint under Russia, then to the Japanese, then to the Communists and finally to the Undead, the city's strategic significance was the only reason it continued to exist.

As a result, beneath the city's ancient city wall and its Soviet-era bunkers were endless warrens and tunnels connecting an ant-hill dozens of kilometres in every direction.

That was why, although barely a structure stood in between the city's war-ravaged edge and the central administrative blocks, the PLA's forces were encamped twenty kilometres away.

"And this creature… this 'Shoggoth', it is capable of slipping into the tunnels?"

"We shall see. By all accounts, I would imagine that it possesses excellent permeability in invading narrow and cramped spaces."

"And it's banishable?"

"Indeed, given enough mana," Fudan's advisor assured the General. "At worst, we can restrain Gwen if she loses control. It's bound to exhaust its internal supply once the link is severed, and there isn't life here for it to feed. Besides, the Tower will keep it well away from your troops and our allies."

"I won't alter our existing mission projections." The man tapped his table.

"No need." Walken indicated first to the map, then to the request form. "The contestant will set up a separate incursion point from Grid G44-P39. I will personally oversee the test AND take responsibility for its success or failure. As you know, Miss Song is a subject of great interest to Central. Have you been informed of the exchange taking place?"

"I've been briefed."

"And you have reviewed what happened in Shimenzi?"

"I've seen enough."

"Good." Walken leaned back in his chair, looking smug. "Then let the girl have her moment. For the present, her glory belongs to Fudan, and thereby to your nation. After that, whether she succeeds or fails, she'll be out of the PLA's hair."

"And out of our reach?"

"Hardly, she has family in Shanghai, doesn't she? Her Uncle is an enlisted member of your organisation and a war hero."

The General remained mum.

"This order from Secretary-General Miao…" Lieutenant General Liang Chu-Rong very carefully intoned. "Says to give her free reign to succeed or perish."

"It's a part of a larger deal. Remember that in exchange, you would receive Magisters from Cambridge, as well as the Meistership for your pet researcher. An unequivocal exchange, to be sure, but that's politics for you. You wouldn't want to compromise the Secretary's plans, do you?"

Again, the General remained contemplative.

"Do you fear the girl will gain too much influence?" Walken cocked his head. "The recordings for the present IIUC should make an interesting broadcast, don't you think. In a prudish country like yours, the Party can easily displace whatever sympathy she had gained. For a Mage, and for a girl— it won't be easy to gain back… what is it that you call it here? Mien?"

"Mian-Zi. It means esteem."

"Yes." The Englishman grinned. "Our little 'Devourer' made quite the obscene spectacle, didn't she?"

General Liang nursed his now warm cup of water, trying to read fallen Magister known as Eric Walken. It was rare to see a certified Oxbridge Magister so committed to a cause.

As for the girl's Mian-Zi, even without the audio recording, the visuals had been shameless enough to make her inclusion in the PLA's designs undesirable to the core. The displacement of such an uncontrollable, anarchic element, one with such pull in the military, was in Liang's opinion, good riddance.

From her dossier, he understood that the girl's rapid rise equated that of a firecracker wrapped in festive red-paper. One day, sooner or later, she would explode, showering them all with debris.

As for the standing order from Secretary-General— Liang felt doubt. The Secretary-General was discretion personified. Still, he knew Central well enough to understand that the Inner Party operated at a level he shouldn't be questioning, not if he wanted to retire as a General.

What troubled him was who in the Mageocracy possessed the clout to move the Secretary-General to issue such a permit? If what Eric Walken said was to come to pass, the IIUC shall soon witness the power of one-woman strategic-class invocation.

A patient man, Liang studied the smug Magister.

The IIUC.
The recording.
The Planar Ally.
The Songs.
The Hero of the North.
Tonglv Canal.
Magister Wen from Fudan.
The Cambridge offer.

The dossier had been quite thorough.

One by one, Liang rearranged the pieces until they made sense.

"I am starting to see your stake in this," Liang answered after a minute of carefully scanning the memo from Secretary-General Miao. "You're trying to salvage the girl's reputation. For when she leaves China for the West. Am I correct? You think those greedy Clanners in Tonglv are going to make a move on her stake by using her departure and her Shimenzi incident!"

Walken's flawless teeth gleamed like polished ivory.

"Well... You know what they say. One man's trash." He chuckled, golf-clapping at the Lieutenant-General's sudden clarity. "… is another man's treasure."

Four hardwon days and almost a week into the competition, Fudan's B-Team arrived at Shimenzi. In its battle-worn halls, haggard and OoM, they met with the account of A-Team's pyrrhic victory.

One received with ambivalence.

Of the three teams that participated in the Purge of the waterworks, Fudan was the "victor", after defeating the most potent foe and having worked diligently during the approach. Unfortunately, in the struggle for dominion, Gwen had lost Eunae and Mayuree, and she could not summon Golos again until she and Petra reconvened at Shenyang's outskirts.

As a result, even taking into account their vice-captain's capacity for damage output; the three remaining members were crippled. Without healing, buffs, or Divination, their efficacy was no match for the synergy-heavy Auckland or the all-star Pretoria in the subsequent lead up to Shenyang.

Even if Gwen and her companions took willing risks to hunt the ever-larger Zombie Hordes, spell fatigue would wear them down. Even with the PLA's hand-picking targets for the trio, there was only so much an Abjurer, a Sword Mage, and a jack-of-all-Schools could arguably achieve.

"Poor Gwen." Anita glanced at Rene, seeing her disappointment mirrored on her friend. "I guess we can't complain, not with what we've seen on the way."

"Gwen had done her best," Petra returned, her tone tart and defensive. "The intelligence was improperly scouted."

"I hope she's not beating herself up." Jiro was more sympathetic.

"Don't be discouraged. We'll continue to do our very best," Fudan's Captain agreed with his Fire Mage. "If Gwen had trouble with this Diego, then there's nothing the rest of us could have done. Since Eunae and Mayuree are both safe, we should focus on the task ahead."

"Right." Rene nodded, though it was clear her heart wasn't in it.

Together with Fudan and the other defensive teams were the 78th, 82nd and 88th Quasi-Magical Infantry Division, supported by four Golems from the 209th Magi-Tech Armour and one Flight from the 4th Aerial Recon.

Tei wanted to say something to up the cheer but lacked the charisma of his vice-captain. At any rate, it wasn't the unexpected upset that had sapped the party's spirits, but rather the rigour of their four-day sojourn from Dalian to Shimenzi.

It was the fatigue of seeing death on an industrial scale.

For the young Mages, the inclusion of NoMs in overland battles had always been an abstract reality. Of Fudan, it was only Tei who had some experience of the Front's horrors. Nonetheless, over the last four days, each member of Fudan, arguably one of the top universities in a country of almost half-a-billion people, witnessed the stark fate of being a citizen-soldier.

Theirs was an unavoidable fate. The Purge of Liaoning was a national effort, one that called upon the nation's able-bodied citizenry to add their blood and tears to the future of China's prosperity. To wit, Tei was very proud of China's NoM Military. Distinct from the Westerners, Mao's rise to power wasn't built on the back of Noble Mages or Magical Entrepreneurs, but NoMs. During the People's Revolution, it was the NoMs, aided by sympathetic Mages, who overthrew the Scholar Bureaucrats of old. Against the Japanese, it was the scorched flesh of citizens that exhausted the wands of Emperor Hirohito's soldiers. In the Great Purge, it was NoMs who dragged the land-owning Mages and their industrial ambitions from their saffron-roofed manors.

And with no less fervour, buttressed against the Beast Tide and then the Undead Front, the People's Liberation Army paid in blood and bone.

As elites, Tei's teammates were a prideful lot. But their brittle pride wasn't equipped to deal with frustration on such a scale. That a single mishap translated into a dozen casualties, hour after hour, was enough to mangle the mind of any Mage not sufficiently fortified for the fact.

For the PLA, casualties were a necessary reality and progress often paralleled body count.

In China, the PLA's soldiers were numberless and renewable— through devotion and numbers, they made up for the nation's gap in Spellcraft, Golems and Magitech.

As solace, Fudan's liaison from the PLA had explained that compared to the dark days post-Beast Tide, the army had come a long way. Now a "Modernised Quasi-Magical Soldier", the everyman troop of the PLA, was reasonably equipped. Compared to the peasant soldiers fighting with pitchforks and pikes, the soldiers now wore enchanted combat boots, damage-resistant pants and vest, a steel helmet, and a well-supplied canvas pack. Most importantly, each man carried a Type 95 Element-LANCE made for NoMs by SinOrdin, with time-decayed crystal cartridges each capable of thirty shots.

"And of course, our soldiers are armed with nationalism," the liaison had boasted. "They don't fear death because the families of the deceased are treated well."

Fighting in formation, the troops had been trained to never break rank on pain of execution by the embedded Commissars wielding Type 44 anti-personnel wands. It was an anti-Undead tactic that the PLA had taken years to perfect. In Central's opinion, so long as unmolested divisions could rid the battlefield of Undead while they busily fed on another division without breaking, then the battle as all but won.

It was a bitter tactic, but it worked. Though each individual soldier was weaker than a Ghoul, when rows of a thousand NoM soldiers five-deep opened fire, a living sheet of raw lightning washed over the landscape, piercing the Horde. Once their spear-points grew white-hot, the first row retreated. The second row took aim, waited for their targets to clear the smoke, then fired. After that came the third, and them the fourth and the fifth in an endless rotation.

And it was under these conditions that Fudan, Pretoria and Auckland fought beside their NoM comrades.

Straight away, Pretoria expressed complete disdain for the NoM soldiers, choosing instead to neutralise threats on their own.

Auckland attempted to hold the line with Fudan. With a sub-par team-make up, however, all they could manage was a battalion-wide Hakka buff, followed by intermittent interventions where possible. Against swarms of corpses numbering in the thousands, a thirty-meter Wall of Water or a twenty-meter Sand Well was little more than a blip on the kilometre-long Front.

At first, the unaccompanied Hordes weren't impressive enough to tax the soldiers' wills. That changed when the main force made contact with a swarm lead by a Grafter and his Acolytes.

Once engaged, Pretoria left to hunt the enemy Necromancers while Auckland and Fudan supported the soldiers against the four-thousand deep throng of teeth and nails.

For two hours, Tei managed to keep the Undead at bay, but as one man, even supported by Petra's Spell Cubes, the incoming tide proved too much.

When finally he was near OoM, the levy broke. As a mass of roaring brown water, the leaping, crawling, skittering shoal of bodies broke over his Dust Wall, swallowing the still-firing platoons.

Without hesitation, Tei had ordered his party to withdraw and regroup into the air. Anita, Rene, Jiro and Petra obeyed, but their expressions spoke wildly of disbelief, anguish, frustration and bewildered helplessness.

Jiro especially had reached his alchemical limits in the first hour, having laid waste to some two-three hundred Ghouls and Zombies. Rene as well, fighting beside the idealistic Fire Mage, had depleted herself trying to prevent the approach of two Abominations. The exertion proved to be her undoing, for the creatures' monstrous resistances exhausted the sorceress even as the fat sizzled from their lava-locked bodies.

Then there was Anita, whose confidence was undermined most profoundly by the mass casualties among the NoM soldiers. Her style of magic was ideal for small groups but was woefully underprepared for engagements of mass melee. All Anita could do was aid Tei with barriers that slowed and funnelled the zombies into kill zones, that and ward two dozen Commissars with Crystalline Mage Armour.

Of the group, it was only Petra who truly shone. A versatile Enchantress, she dispensed healing, defence, damage and control where ever she landed. Spell cube after spell cube, the Flower of Fudan proved herself an angel of the battlefield.

And after that, the party watched the mutual carnage as their countrymen advanced, never faltering, never breaking, never retreating. Like an Iron Golem, only wrought of human flesh, the PLA's battalions marched toward Shimenzi, clearing a swarth four kilometres wide and eighty kilometres deep from Dalian.

From start to finish, Tei recalled seven engagements.

On the first day, they had keenly asked to review casualty reports.
On the second day, they chose silence.
On the third day, they grew numb to the slates handed down to them by their liaison officer.
On the fourth day, they fought without words, each performing their duties, then meditated behind the reserve troops so that they may sooner rejoin the fray.
And on the fifth morning, they arrived at Shimenzi to receive news.

"Tei, let's eat." Rene could smell the thousand-year-old egg porridge bubbling in the Officer's Mess. Far from her peppy self in Shanghai, her eyes were now bloodshot and lacking in lustre. Her bright face, as well, was so weighted with fatigue that she was starting to resemble the fabled Panda people of Sichuan.

"Right." Tei felt glad that in moments like this, Dust dulled not only his capacity for wonder, joy and pleasure but also the impact of undesired emotions. "Eat up, we rest for a day, and then we leave for Shen Yang."

"I am as dry as a billabong in Broken Hill." Gwen rested her spell-numb fingers. "And fresh out of True Silver as well."

"Here, take mine." Heila materialised four rods as repayment. "Your VMI… Praise the Lord, you are truly blessed, Miss Song."

"Nothing to it!" Gwen shook her head, receiving the reagents without complaint. "Izette, are we good here?"

"Yes, Miss Song," Pretoria's Diviner returned her Message from afar. "Jean-Paul is finishing up as we speak."

"Now that's a blessed boy." Gwen sighed at the thought of Jean-Paul's Signature Spells.

A few of Pretoria's constants returned with strange looks.

"Something the matter?" Gwen smiled back, wondering if praising Jean-Paul was something that the Void Mage's companions found strange. If anything, she suspected it may be because Jean-Paul had replaced one of their original core members.

"You should ask Jean-Paul about his childhood sometimes." Schalk's smile was very polite and not at all sarcastic. "If he's willing to share, you'll hear quite the tale of how our country faired under the Mageocracy."

"And the Nun who raised him." Lencho wormed his way in between Gwen's conversation with the others. Ever since Gwen offered to alternate between helping out Auckland and Pretoria, Schalk's Lightning Mage had felt like a cat on a hot tin roof. Though Lencho's mastery and teamwork were leagues above Fudan's Lightning Sorceress, the girl possessed superior firepower, not to mention an inexplicable ability to multiply her output.

"Lencho, hou jou bek," Schalk snapped, silencing the Lighting Mage at once. "Miss Song is our guest."

"Ja, ja…" the prideful Mage mumbled. "Meisie, you should know that Jean-Paul and I, we're piele vleg."

"Did he just say…" Gwen almost bit her tongue. She had no idea Lencho was so openly liberal. "Well, good on ya, mate."

Lencho squinted suspiciously. "I am not your mate."

Gwen gave up. She could empathise, though. Jean-Paul wasn't a looker, but he oozed talent.

Thus far, she rather enjoyed her role as a supporting caster. Whether backing Pretoria or Auckland, Fudan's inclusion in the margins of any quest expanded operational capacity by leaps and bounds. The solution had been Walken's idea. As CCs were awarded for teamwork and support, Walken had said. They may as well attain a score proportional to their competitors' gains.

That way, her instructor hypothesised, assuming their final hand was a royal flush, they would indeed end the competition with a "Bang".

Presently, Lulan and Richard aided Auckland, while she supplemented Pretoria. Thus embedded, Gwen took the humbling opportunity to watch and learn.

So far, she had observed the nuances of formation fighting and spell staggering, concepts her team had exercised through incidence rather than emphasis. Likewise, courtesy of Izette's Link Mind, she was opening up to profound and subtle ways in which Divination could be used to coordinate team movement. As for the others, even the abrasive Lencho had shown her new ways to combine Evocation and Transmutation. His Signature Spell, Tempest Rush, was especially impressive as it created movable anchor points from which the caster could rebound Lightning Bolts.

But of Pretoria's august members, it was only Jean-Paul for whom Gwen had to repress her growing envy. From what she could discern with her limited knowledge, Jean-Paul's repertoire was almost all Signature Spells she had never before seen in the Tower's Tomes. Each invocation was a painstaking creation from the august Mevrou Bekker, who had taken a novel approach to the pitfalls of Void Magic. Consumptive Orb, for example, stole residual mana from the target. On a Magical Creature, it commandeered passive mana inherent to upper-tier creatures. Against a Mage, the spell was most effective against Negative-alignments but fizzled against Positive Energy spectrums. As for the theoretical framework of Jean-Paul's magic, "Usurp" was the base upon which the Mevrou's Signature Magic was founded.

"The difficulty must be astounding," Gwen cooed.

"You patronise us, Miss Song. Once you reach a sufficient tier of knowledge," Schalk professed. "You should stop thinking about Spells as from Scrolls, but collated effects made harmonious through custom-formulae. Range, Area of Effect, Shape, Size, Element, Seeking, Channelling, Scale, Pre-Manifestation, Post-Manifestation, Meta-Magic, Spell Triggers, the variations are almost infinite… assuming you have the time and the resource."

"Then, I could also…" Gwen licked her chops.

"I don't entirely agree with Schalk. The Mevrou says that Spells should never be made for the sake of making spells, that there have to be explicit rationales," Jean-Paul quickly added, watching Gwen's eyes glaze with anticipation. "There's a reason Fireball remains the greatest Evocation Spell of all time. It's simple to cast, difficult to disrupt, easy to learn, fast to manifest, stable, low-cost and mana-efficient."

"That's incredibly astute! Ahh—" Gwen sighed. "I wish I could have an instructor like yours in London."

"You probably will," Schalk's interjecting voice resounded assuringly. He glanced at Jean-Paul, then back toward the guileless sorceress. "But remain vigilant. In London and everywhere— there is no such thing as a free lunch."

 

 

 

 

 

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A note from Wutosama

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