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"So— what happens now?" Alizea Kock, the vice-captain of Pretoria, tugged her ponytail loose, drawing eyes from across the room. "What? Don't look at me. I can't do what she just did. That 'Devourer' thing isn't an Ooze."

Her captain, the lauded star of House Hertzog, was affixed to the lumen crystals he had acquired from a sympathetic proctor on a hand-held device. 

"So, did we win or lose?" Alizea's voice oozed. "Against... that."

"The part where she choked a reborn Soul Flayer, moaned for a quarter of an hour, or the part where she consumed half the underground bunker?"

"All of it?"

Jean-Paul raised a pale hand. "May I speak, Miss Kock?"

"Speak freely, leech." The Ooze Mage jiggled as she leaned back, languished by the surreal sight to which they had just bore witness.

Alizea's frustration wasn't hers alone. For the better part of two days, Pretoria had exhausted themselves defending the PLA's troops, simultaneously breaching the eastern quadrant of the city. Even at the risk of injury, Schalk and the others had punched through no less than twelve checkpoints, killing six named Necromancers and countless acolytes.

However, a kilometre away from the central chamber where the highest concentration of CCs awaited, they and the PLA Mages aiding Pretoria were ordered to retreat.

The rationale? All troops had to make way for the all-consuming Void Beast that was making its way through the city centre.

The delay had persisted for a day, after which the now fabled "Devourer" revealed itself, spilling over onto the city's surface until grey ectoplasm inundated every conceivable cranny, leaving nothing organic in its wake.

Furthermore, to add insult to injury, the notice came two days later that the Purge was at an end and that the Tower would now move to occupy Shenyang's ley-line.

That was when Schalk lodged a complaint, after which their advisor returned with copies of Fudan's crystals to placate the team. Upon review, all protest evaporated as they watched Fudan's Gwen Song run face-first into a Lich, after which she had to be rescued by her instructor.

Once Magister Walken sent Gwen back to base, the vid-cast ended. When Schalk asked the others how they would have dealt with the Lich, the whole team engaged in a prolonged debate, but agreed on one thing— none of them could have held the Lich as Gwen had.

It didn't help that the PLA had then effectively 'exorcised' that very same Lich. According to the rumours, Fudan's instructor had predicted where the Lich would choose to teleport above ground. When finally the People's Hall fell, and the Lich materialised, it appeared well within the range of Dalian's adjusted artillery.

The resulting spell-cluster was a strategic bombardment involving a Mandala of Disintegration, a six-some battery of Atlas 388s, two Spell Jammers, and a projected, maximised and empowered Sun Beam from the Lieutenant-General himself. So little of the Lich's mana signature was left afterwards that at least a decade would pass before it could be reborn from its phylactery.

"Unless they're disqualified, Fudan is going to out-CC us," Jean-Paul intoned demurely, not wanting to meet Azalea's smokey eyes. "But we should advance nonetheless. I am looking forward to our home match— I am missing Pretoria already."

"Regtig? And why would you think that?"

"Gwen is strong," their Void Mage continued, more confident now that he wasn't rebuked. "But she's a Spellcraft amateur in reality. The chances of her squaring off an offensive duelist from Oxford or the Massachusetts Institute of Thaumaturgy is virtually nil. Strategically, she could utilise this Devourer of hers, but from the fact that we all had to retreat, its ability to differentiate friend and foe must be minimal. If anything, the IIUC will not allow a sorceress with such an unpredictable skillset into a higher-tier competition where the stakes can be incredibly high."

"I agree with Jean-Paul," Schalk concurred. "Especially when the final two bouts traditionally take place in the Wildlands, usually conducted with, or against Demi-humans. She's simply too unpredictable, not to mention she's a magnet for trouble. As for her Void Beast, one only needs to look toward Elizabeth Sobel."

The team nodded, they had all studied up on the modern history of Void Magic thanks to Jean-Paul and Gwen Song.

"And so far, in all of her matches, she had pulled through mostly by the skin of her teeth. And during our current quest, she had TWICE almost met a grisly end…" Schalk reminded his teammates. "Comparatively, we're relatively unscathed, that has to be taken into account."

"And her teammates…" Jean-Paul's voice trailed off.

"Are hondekak." Lencho wagged a finger rudely.

"Lencho!" Schalk snorted at their Lightning Mage. "Gwen is twice the Evoker you profess to be."

"Ja—ja—" Lencho growled. "Acting nice doesn't mean we deny the truth. Richard and Lulan are passable, but not on our level. Their Captain barely reaches your ankles. The rest of her team…"

The Evoker wiggled a pinky.

"Bly stil." Schalk waved him away. "Our conversation isn't private."

Around the officer's lounge, the Chinese Mages kept a respectful distance from the Afrikaners. Hopefully, Schalk glanced around the place; these junior officers didn't have Translation stones capable of filtering Afrikaans.

"We'll wait for the outcome." Schalk reset the Lumen-recording. "For now, let's review the scenes again— ours, Fudan's and Auckland's. I want each of your thoughts and countermeasures."

Magister Jamison laid down the facts with a flourish.

She had gotten her heart's desire, and now it was time to pay the piper.

"At this point, I don't think there's much point bean-counting." She pointed to the lumen screens behind her. On each was a lumen-crystal playing Fudan's highlights, which was to say, a certain Void sorceress' most valorous and lascivious moments. Though some of the recording had been blocked by the Lich's Necromancy, subjects under the Eye of Providence provided individiual Divi-Scrys via inscribed Eye-beacons. "Need I remind the Proctors that extreme circumstances call for unusual measures— and that Fudan has shown itself to be a true anomaly?"

A dozen hands raised from the long table.

"Jacqueline, speak your mind."

"Paris' opinion," the blonde Magister spoke with a haughtiness distinct to the French. "Is that Fudan should not advance."

"And the reason?"

"We are bending too many rules for them already." The Magister tapped the table with a fountain pen. "First, we turned a blind eye to the Chinese when they fed Fudan the most viable quests. Then, we capitulated to their instructor's request to use the Shoggoth in what was essentially a clear violation of the limitation of spell tiers. THEN, their instructor broke protocol and rescued contestant Gwen Song."

"Noted. Though I must remind you that as Chief Proctor, I did consult with the PLA, our host, it was they who made the request." Jamison stood her ground. "And besides, what would you do, have the girl die?"

"Absurd! She possessed a one-of-a-kind Contingency Ring!"

"She was holding off a Lich!"

"From which she was rescued, when she should have dealt with the escape on her own."

"Let's agree to disagree on that point," Jamison scoffed. "The circumstances for the violation were sound. We don't send students to duel Liches, Magister Brodeur; we don't send Magisters to duel them either."

The Parisian proctor snorted. "You may see a wonderful specimen, but I see a danger. Chief Proctor, Magister Jamison, let me be plain. I know that you got research out of Gwen Song. Thereby, I openly question your impartiality."

"No doubt." Jamison's eyes grew hard. "And it is your privilege to do so. That said, feel free to lodge your complaint. For reasons I can't possibly discern, I think Brussels will take Oxbridge and Stanford's revision over yours."

The room grew frigid.

"Now, now." Another proctor stood between them. "Let's not get so cavalier about our differences. We're all on the same side. Chief Proctor Jamison, what will it take for you to concede Fudan's advancement? I will not fault your admiration of the girl's talents, but her team won't cut the mustard, as you Americans say. The final rounds are simply too much. Consider the mediocrity of their support and the limitations of China's indigenous Spellcraft, and in particular, their rented Healer from Seoul. Haven't you heard that their Cleric now refuses to participate? At best, Fudan has a passable team of five, with the rest being spell fodder. Why send them into the next round just to be humiliated? Fudan won't even have home ground. They'll be fighting in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I am sure you know the area, yes? What possibility is there for another 'Shoggoth' to be deployed in the American heartland?"

Jamison's chocolate orbs scanned the table of proctors. Of the dozen present, most of the contingent hailed from American Universities and therefore would follow her lead. The few that remained opposed, however, weren't easy to sway nor quick to be cowed. The rules of the IIUC were ironclad, and obedience to the regulations are absolute. As their leader in Brussels once said, rules are broken only once— after that, they're just a technicality.

"That may be, but the girl's singular contributions cannot be ignored," Jamison intoned, staring down the European Magisters. "That said, if Pretoria must advance, then I shall nominate Miss Song for the title of Most Valuable Participant."

"Preposterous!" The proctor from Paris slammed the table. "There are two more matches to be concluded! AND the girl's from a no-name, third-string Chinese institution!"

"And should any of the competition's future participants fend off a Lich, consume six-dozen Necromancers, six-and-a-half thousand Undead, not to mention thousands in collateral fodder... They can then convince the PLA, an important regional ally, to offer up Contribution Credits in their name. Find me a Mage willing to do HALF of that, and I'll concede."

"Jacqueline." Another proctor placed a hand on the fuming woman's shoulder. "Leave it to Magister Jamison. We have an acceptable resolution, and she's still the Chief Proctor."

"Very well." Jamison motioned. "All in favour of Pretoria to advance, Fudan and Auckland to concede, and Gwen Song as the nominee for MVP, say 'aye'."

"Aye."
"Aye."
"Aye."
"Aye."
"Aye."
"Aye."
"Aye."
"Aye."

"Then I won't ask for 'nay'." Magister Jamison slid a dozen slates across the table. "Sign, please. After that, we'll tally the CCs. They should be nothing but damning, in MY opinion."

Percy endured the constant line of congratulations with the patience of an Earthen Abjurer.

It was a chore he bore with dignity. How else was he going to stomach the nauseating reality that his seniors were vicariously addressing his sister by greeting her facsimile?

"Gwen eradicated the Lich?" Mei gushed, her eyes sparkling, her grin so extensive as to appear comical.

"She was involved in the process. I'd imagine." Percy forced himself to desist in tapping his left foot, dispelling some of his aggravation. Naturally, he refused to believe the gossip. If Gwen did solo a Lich at eighteen, he may as well give up now and spend the rest of his life living in the limelight of the future General-Secretary Song.

"They say her Devourer consumed all the Necromancers! She's a hero, just like Uncle Jun!"

"But she was injured." Percy made a face, wondering when he would be allowed to visit the upper portion of the Tower, if at all. "As usual, Sis was over-ambitious and bit off more than she could chew. I imagine Babulya is going to be upset."

"And Uncle Hai as well." Mei hypothesised un-ironically, having met the charming Hai just once, Percy's father had left a wonderful impression.

"I wouldn't channel mana into that idea." Percy's tone softened. "Dad… let's not talk about Dad. If anything I think Uncle Jun would be more upset."

"When do you think we can see Gwen?"

"Not anytime soon. Our party is going back to Shanghai as soon as Shenyang re-opens the routes. But maybe we can bum a Teleport from my sister. She's loaded, after all."

"Aiyaaa! Rich, pretty, and she eats Necromancers by the dozen! Percy, you're the luckiest little brother I know!"

Percy smiled politely, then sighing, he fell into deep thought while one thumb caressed his Kirin pendant.

As usual, Gwen returned from an adventure laden with accomplishments and prospects. That his sister's Necromantic ability to stack corpses to pad her talent wasn't yet an open secret was astounding to Percy. Comparatively, he had been risk-aversive since realising the pendant's utility.

Nevertheless, though incomparable to his sister's nonchalance in swallowing her enemies on national Vid-cast, he had not wasted his time at the Front. Thanks to the invasion, he had gotten permission from his instructor to follow the 7th Recon in repelling multiple waves of the Undead Tide. As a result, by merely fighting beside the PLA soldiers, he was able to pick up not only the ethereal Essence from the perishing Undead but also the occasional jolt from a dying Mage.

For someone at his tier, his progress had been nothing short of incredible. The prolonged engagement had ensured a wealth of opportunities. Where previously he had hunted the blighted dead for days just to feed smidgens of Essence into the Kirin Core, his ancestral spirit now gorged on a feast of dissipating energies so thick as to form a miasma over the battlefield. Where the NoMs and the Undead had been locked in ultra-violence, he had felt tirelessly energised. As a result, his pendant was now glossy and nourished, its veins pulsing with an inner radiance. That and his instructor and the Captain from the 7th had put in a commendation for his excellent display of valour.

"You're right, Mei— I AM lucky." Percy slipped the pendant back into place, just above his heart. "Either way, this training trip has taught me a lot. My bottleneck on Evocation and Transmutation are both loosening."

"So soon?!" Mei squealed. "And your Abjuration is almost at tier three!"

"I AM the brother of the famous Devourer of Shenyang, after all." Percy mulled over the nickname fast spreading through the ranks. When one desired a fashionable alias, the acquisition was harder than grappling a greased orc. When it came to stupidly suggestive ones, they spread like a swarm of pissed-off fire ants.

"Are you disappointed?" Whetu and the other Maori's protruding bodies ensured that Yue hid behind a mountain of caramel flesh.

"Over what? Gwen being choice?" Yue stabbed at the grape in her bowl.

"Over Auckland being bested." Whetu glanced at their advisor, saw the woman contentedly chatting with the others, then turned back toward Yue.

"I should be." Yue scratched her chin, then pointed at the rest of her team. "But does that mob look they're moping over their loss?"

"... Oi suppose you're right."

Two tables across and crowding the soldier's mess, the Wikiriwhi brothers were slamming down free beers with the NCOs. After the declaration of the operation's decisive success, those not on duty had all assembled in the lower mess to celebrate, with the Non-Coms bringing in crates of bubbling horse piss.

Not far, Rongo, the Water Evoker, sprayed spittle all over, narrating his conquest of the Necromancers at Shimenzi. Rona, Auckland's quaterling captain, stood on a table, entertaining a group of whistling soldiers with illusions of Gwen overpowering the enemy. As for the rest, Auckland's happy-go-lucky participants wandered here and there, receiving hugs, clinking glasses, and exchanging boasts of their contributions in the war.

"Not joining them?" Yue grinned. "They told me I shouldn't drink while the healing spells are still in effect, so I've been stuck with this ginseng root brew."

"Oi'll stay ear with you." The big man blushed.

"Aw, that's sweet, Whetu." Yue giggled, then sighed. "There is something though— since you're asking. Ya know— I thought I'd caught up to Gwen by now, but so much for that, eh? Did you know that when we first started, she had no idea how an Awakening worked and spent almost three months trying to cast Magic Missile without using a Sigil? She was such a clueless hussy back then. It was cute."

"Oi am sure et was." Whetu grinned.

"And there's this time she got dragged by her uncle into a marriage arrangement thing, offered to the highest bidder, you know? And at his mansion, she got hog-tied and put up for auction, and then in the nick of time, my Master crashed through the ceiling and burned the dickhead's house down. It was in the news for days."

"That oi don't remember," Whetu chortled. "You know, are you sure that's root beer? It smells strong as anything..."

"Eh, close enough." Yue took another long swig. "So that's it, eh? Back to Sydney for me. Back to my hovel! I guess I've accomplished my objective. Got to meet Gwen, see the world, crisped up a dozen Necromancers, almost burned out my conduits. All-in-all, a good road trip before I start my new job in the Greater Sydney Militia."

"Blessed moana, Oi hope we're not taking the sheep back." Whetu paled. As a Pounamu Mage strongly attuned to Elemental Earth, the big man languished when left at sea for extended periods.

"I'll send word to our rich bitch," Yue snickered, before suddenly slapping Whetu on the thighs. "Oi oi oi— Wait-a-second—"

"What is it?" Whetu winced, startled by the unanticipated assault.

"If Gwen is free to leave Shanghai after this, and she's got crystals for days…" Yue clapped her hand. "Why the fuck shouldn't she take a detour back to Sydney? Holy shit! I have to let her know before she plans her trip!"

Gwen took a deep breath, circulating Essence to displace her nerves.

Though she had lost Ayxin's scale, the flow and control she maintained remained no worse than before. It meant that "Essentially", her training wheel stage of Essence-control was over.

As for her health, she felt fine, though according to Magister Jamison, she shouldn't be out and about just yet— not after copping a Circle of Death and a Grasp Heart, both spells from which Mages seldom walked away.

Still, her present errand had to be done. Else, she would never taste the sweet balm of guiltless sleep again.

"Ee ee!" Gwen's unseen helper offered a yip of encouragement. In turn, she patted her invisible pseudo-Kirin, then gathered up her strength for the cringeworthiness to come.

"It's me, Gwen." She knocked on the ward door. "Can I come in?"

"Gwen? Bless the Goddess! Come on in!" Mayuree's peppy voice chimed an invitation.

Gwen opened the door.

Recuperation suites in the Tower were neither spacious nor many, so the two girls who had been "Contingencied" back had been shoved into one room, their beds split by a pale blue privacy curtain.

"Gwen, they told me you were injured as well!"

"Ha— I survived, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, eh?"

"If you say so. We've won, right? The healers aren't keen on details."

"That... isn't for me to say."

Gwen regarded the two girls in their sanatorium gowns. Mayuree had lost the lustre with which she was usually suffused. Heartachingly, her chubby cheeks had since grown sallow, and she looked to have lost her usual weight.

One bed space across, Eunae was no less adorable than her usual self, though the healer's expression when she walked through the door wasn't at all welcoming.

"Yi… yi…" Something quailed under the bed. It was Luyi, Eunae's doe sprite, covering its eyes with its hooves.

"Mia, Eunnie," Gwen swallowed. Just in case, she toned down the Essence circulation. What she needed now was a softer, sisterly touch. "Are the both of you alright? We won the battle. Shenyang is ours once more. The Undead are gone!"

"I knew it!" Mayuree punched the air, a gesture she'd inherited from Gwen. "Great work, Gwennie, I was confident you could do it! What does that mean? Are we going to advance? Are we going to America or London? Marong's currently trading with the Rare Stone and Creature Core markets over there. I am sure we'll be looked after if he makes a request, we're talking hundreds of thousands of HDMs here..."

"No..." Eunae moaned, her brow breaking out in a terrific cold sweat.

On cue, Gwen repositioned herself sympathetically, then reached out with a hand of compassion and mercy.

"Eunnie, are you feeling okay? Do I need to call the physician?"

Her healer began to cry.
Great glops of liquid leaked from Eunae's big brown eyes, painting a very picture of pity.

"Aww, don't cry." Gwen patted the girl softly, feeling every bit the remorseless villain. "Eunnie, whatever's the matter, you can tell your vice-captain, okay?"

Eunae's sobs stifled. When she looked up, her expression was both defiant and melancholic.

Okay— Post Wraith-Stress Disorder? Gwen bit her lip. Despite being a post-Lich survivor, she wasn't at all familiar in dealing with real-life PTSD. What she remembered of the subject was pure conjecture gained from reading the ABC and BBC. As for her moment of terror, it was easy to banish the spring-wrangling horror when a threat could be externally rationalised. That or she was growing a little too numb to hair-breathe escapes for her own comfort. Thrill-seeking, as her old psychologist would say, was no less self-destructive.

"Talk to me, Eunnie." Gwen put aside her problems for the moment. She wasn't a stranger to comforting young interns. As a manager, she understood the carrot and the stick, and though she had never fancied herself Merril Streep from the "Devil Wears Prada", she could be very commanding when the occasion arouse. "If it's a problem that we can solve, then we will solve it together."

"Ee ee!" Ariel comforted Luyi by stroking the doe with its furry tail. Unfortunately, Eunae's Familiar appeared dead-set on mirroring its owner's anxiety.

Assuming an expression of great patience, Gwen waited.
And waited.
Then waited some more.
And then she realised, with a little internal surprise, that there was a limit to her patience and sympathy. As Gwen had always suspected, Dr Monroe charged an arm and a leg for good reasons; that woman possessed the patience of Mother Theresa.

"Gwen," Mayuree interjected when Eunae continued to play the ostrich. "Listen, but keep comforting Eunnie."

Gwen remained still, persisting in her patience act. Mayuree was using a silent Message.

"Eunae's spooked," Gwen's Burmese companion explained. "I don't think you should be speaking to Eunae about victories. She's deathly scared of progress at the moment. I guess she blames you— wrongly— for what happened to her. That and she's frightened. You have to remember, Eunnie's just an exchange student, she got talked into the competition by the Dean just to be your support. She's not— equipped for some of the things we've seen and done."

Like usurping a country, murdering a sibling, quelling a rebellion and selling the dynast to a Dragon, Gwen thought even as she inclined her chin. That and eat people and monsters to steal their talent and Essence.

"We've been here almost ten days now, and we've talked a lot," Mayuree continued. "Eunnie's wish was to be a top physician in Tokyo or Shanghai or anywhere… away from the Front. She thought taking a turn in the IIUC would look good on her resume, but then, of course, we won in Peru. She had thought about quitting then, but her family told her to stay. When it was announced that we were going to the Front, she almost ran, but again, the Lees kept up the pressure."

"Her dad?"

"OVER her Dad, and her brother, too. Their careers had been held hostage. That's what Eunae said. The main family's influence in Seoul is unparalleled."

"Well, shit." Gwen moved to hug Eunae, but the girl drew back.

Gwen bit her lower lip.
"It's alright, Eunnie." She patted the girl on the knees. "I won't make you do anything you don't want to, alright? I'll talk to your family."

"It's no use. Gwen, we'll have to replace her." Mayuree's tone was unexpectedly stark, likely as a result of failing to persuade Eunae for several days. Still, for Gwen, the Diviner's proposal came as a surprise. After Kitty's passing and Marong's take over of the family business, her Diviner had most certainly changed, though Gwen wasn't sure if it was for the better. "Didn't Golos say Lulu could go to the Mount for lessons? Maybe you could learn that healing Lightning you told me about, we'll find someone else to replace Eunae, ideally a buffer like those Auckland girls. Then, we advertise for a Faith Healer."

"I don't know for sure if we're going to advance," Gwen whispered back. "The Shoggoth did a lot, but Walken had to save me in the end—"

"That traitor Magister saved you?" Mayuree gasped. "So the rumours are true?"

Gwen cleared her throat, blushed a little, then spoke out audibly.

"Why don't we take a walk, get some fresh air? Eunnie, you can tell me all about what you wish to do next, and I'll relay what happened after our series of unfortunate events."

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So, I fucked my back (super bad sprain) and sitting down itself is a pain.

Xmas coming up as well, so I'd say... CH schedules will be disrupted by the exact No of days I need to spend entertaining family and friends + all the shopping. Thankfully the cliffs are over, and we're in wrap-up for a few CHs. I will be concurrently editing Ch 48 - 97 in January for Vol.2, look out for those! 


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Wutosama

Bio: I write on the phone and edit at home. Times are tough!

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