The Old Districts.
The M on the Bund, Gwen felt, was the right choice for a reunion.
The first time she was "taken out" by her cousins Mina and Tao, it was to this cafe by day, underground fight club by night. Here, she met Dai, fought her first duel in Shanghai, and was near-arrested for cockfighting. After that, thanks to actions by Mayuree and Marong, the M on the Bund had become a favoured haunt for her new circle of friends, mainly because she had been poor and Mia had footed the bill.
Now almost eighteen-months into the epoch of Centurion Credit, the House of M stood as a playground for the wealthy and privileged in Shanghai. The source of the House's prestige lay with Marong who had secured the once riotous venue by proportioning out profits to influential Party members, choosing to harness social capital over wealth.
In this way, the House of M was now the venue of choice for the Guan-er-dai and the Fu-er-dai. Here, the progenies of power resolved disputes through duels, found happiness in questionable pursuits and exchanged grey market goods, all under the watchful eye of their guardians— as well as Marong's Manipuri Shadowmen.
Prior, there had been a collective hush when the military-plated vehicle arrived. Now, Gwen inspired a sucking-in of breath as she stepped onto the curb, aided by Wei.
Gone was the demure china-blue apparel she received from her Babulya. Instead, she wore a naughty black dress purchased from a London designer with a flair for the Elven.
Quickly adjusting her hem, she waited as Tao and Mina rendezvoused with Percy and Officer Yung from the second saloon, then made for the entrance.
"Esteemed young Misses and Sirs." The six or so doormen bowed before accosting the group. "Do you have an invitation?"
Before Wei acted, Mina snatched at the air like a Conjurer performing a trick, revealing a Centurion Card. The sight was enough to draw a collective murmur of awe and envy from the queue, to which Gwen nodded with pleasure at the reaction. From the crowd's longing glances, it meant the marketing Marong had put in place at her behest was working well.
The security Mages hurriedly unhooked the velvet rope barring entry to the club. "Welcome to the M on the Bund, Ma'am. May I ask for your preferred destination? The jazz lounge, karaoke, the M Club or the duelling ring? We shall ready a suite before you arrive."
Gwen looked toward Mina.
"The duelling ring."
Gwen raised an arched brow.
Mina gave her a secret smile in turn.
"This way." The leading concierge half-turned— then suddenly paused. A hint of recognition abruptly registered in the man's eyes, changing the tone and pitch of his voice. "Ma'am, may I enquire if your Ladyship is the esteemed Miss Song?"
"Dat's right, bitches!" Besides her, Tao could no longer contain his smugness. Wherever there was a crowd, Gwen observed, Tao's inner Peaches threatened to spill. "Mah 'Cuz' here is the world-famous Devourer of Shenyang!"
Gwen winced the moment the words left Peaches' flapping lips.
As expected, the unhappy, chittering queue of gawkers checking out the giantess fell into a stunned stillness.
"So that's Gwen Song…" someone murmured.
"It's her; I recognise the... eyes."
"Mao, she looks exactly like her SPAM advert…"
"Can a Void Mage live in a tier 1 city?"
For Gwen, it had been some time since a peanut gallery had turned her into a curio. Perhaps it were the cultural differences between Shanghai and London; East versus West; or simply that there were more Magisters in London than one could shake a Wand at. In London, not once had the actual public stopped to stare as though an Owl Bear was giving birth on Broadway.
Then, to her surprise, the tightly packed crowd began to disperse.
"Looks like you're more famous than you think, sis." Percy smirked.
The departing crowd collectively chose taciturnity, bowing, nodding, curtsying and backing away with forced smiles. Within the minute, the hundred or so well-dressed party-goers flocked for the shadows, leaving Gwen's party watching woodenly by the entryway.
Once more, Gwen looked toward Mina questioningly.
"What you did to Dai," Mina explained while shaking her head. "And by extension, the Fung Clan has become a fabled allegory among the youth."
"What 'I' did?" Gwen's tone turned churlish. She could understand if these assorted progenies wanted to kiss her hand or her feet, knowing their fetishes, but to turn from her like she was a Void Plague?
"Word on the street, Gwennabitch," Peaches illustrated with rare sobriety. "Is that those who woo you or attracts your ire will suffer the pain of excommunication from their House or Clan. The journalists call you the Saviour of Shenyang, dawg, but in the hood, we call you the C—"
"Peaches!" Mina hissed.
"— Calamity!" Peaches blurted forth the four-syllable word.
"… Calamity it is." Gwen breathed out with a sigh. Looking at the empty line, she supposed a deserted club was better than no club. "Alright, come on. Let's hope Lulu's got better luck with the guests."
In the underground arena of the infamous House of M, Shanghai's midnight children spell-duelled for honour and ego.
Officially, there existed not even a remote possibility that any an illegal activity would be condoned by a Party whose watchword began and ended with social "Harmony". Unofficially, such a facility HAD to exist, and if it must, then it might as well profit its backers.
Compared to the Devourer's infamous initial visit, the "House Arena" now sported a tier of Abjuration akin to IIUC competitions. On the floor, shape-shifting terrain-plates that generated any number of exotic battle-settings sheltered Anti-magic Wards to keep contestants cool in the heat of battle, enveloped by continuous Walls of Force.
Usually, a cacophony of squealing women and hooting men ran circles around the oval area, placing bets, quaffing drinks and baying for blood.
Tonight, however, even the premier Adjudicator Magus Ji Meng Yuu remained unusually reticent.
In the VIP box, Kusu Li checked his Message Device for the umpteenth time.
"Are they here yet?" Ruì downed a shot of mana-rich rice wine, her teeth still chattering after what Lulan had done to her last victim.
Kusu wanted to know the answer to that question as well. Checking his device once more, the Sword Mage from Huashan felt so anxious his bladder throbbed. From memory, driving from Wujiaochang to the Bund couldn't have taken more than forty minutes, even taking traffic into account.
"The Winner is Miss Lulan Li!" A burst of Illusion-empowered fireworks smothered the ceiling, followed by scant cheers and a few half-hearted claps.
On the far side, a contingent of Healers, one at least at the rank of Magus, dragged a rag-dolled body out of the arena. Beside them, an NoM crew wiped the blood from the Wall of Force.
"You." The petite figure on the stage pointed to a group of ashen-faced young men and women sitting like Wildland quails at a street-side butcher in Wuhan. "You're next."
A young man, the object of his sister's finger, twisted his face with an expression of undisclosed inner agony. Kusu could see that he and his lackeys knew they had stepped on a Warding Glyph, and they had apologised, in a way— but Lulu was neither one to take on apologies nor sycophantic pleas.
"Miss Li." The young man stood, straightening out his suit to soothe his nerves. "If you do not accept our sincerity even after what you did to Pei, then you're truly making an enemy of the Sun family."
"The Arena, NOW." His sister's face was all rime, and her voice was December frost. "Or apologise to Ruì. Or I fight you out there. No rules, no healers, no magic dampeners."
The young Mage's lips twitched; for a young master, grovelling to an NoM peasant was a fate worse than Lulan. It didn't help that somewhere in the dark, Kusu could hear the sound of people failing to suppress their glee.
The Sword Mage's temple throbbed.
Here was the reason he never allowed Lulan to visit seedy places like the M on the Bund. Ever since her Heart of Iron days, his berserker sister was always low on what Gwen coined as emotional intelligence. It took an insidious mind to navigate the twisted path outside; his sister's thought process, conversely, was as straight as a shot of Panzerschreck.
A few days ago, when news arrived that Gwen would stay over for a day in Shanghai, Lulan had flown back from Ryxi's abode hoping to see their friend and saviour. Over the last nine-months, Lulan had greatly enhanced her fighting potential by training in the ancient methods provided by the White Serpent of Huangshan, her Shifu. Having mastered the early stages of the Plum Blossom Sword, she had wanted to show off her progress to Gwen, whom his sister had professed to serve as a vassal when the Devourer earned her Tower and by extension, semi-autonomous extraterritoriality.
When she spoke to Mina about duelling Gwen, Mina had recommended the underground arena run by the House of M. With her Centurion Card, Mina explained, they could eat and drink to their leisure, as well as book the fighting pit at a moment's notice, assuming Gwen could attend. As a result, Lulan had dragged Kusu, herself, and the hardworking Ruì out to meet Gwen.
And as expected, almost without fail, trouble found them.
Sun Liyun, the Mage Lulan was currently chopping down to size, was the son of someone who was someone, or so Kusu figured. His bodyguard, a man Lulan had pulverised with a single Heart-Seeking jadeite slab at medium range, was a Magus of no small renown at the M's duelling floor.
Kusu felt sorry for the bastard, for Sun's highly paid bodyguard had stepped into the arena only because Lulan had earlier sent three of Sun's "friends" to the infirmary.
The first bout had ended with a Cloud Striking Palm that shattered a woman's jaw, the next with a round-house that mashed a man against the wall. Yet another concluded with a sword swing that turned an Abjurer's arm U-shaped, then after that came the bodyguard, though none of their bodies had satiated Lulu's bloodlust.
But Kusu couldn't blame his sister, not this time.
As the old saying goes, "If you don't try to die, you won't die."
The whole event happened earlier when Lulu had ordered an expensive drink called "Sex on the Beach", arriving concurrently at their VIP booth with a boisterous group of Guan-er-dai headed for the stall next door.
The moment Sun's eyes had rested on his sister, the Mage's lips curled, a reaction understandable to Kusu.
Lulu was the most beautiful beauty he knew, more beautiful than even the Flower of Fudan, attractive enough that passersby suffered from whiplash. Every so often, he wished that Lulan would look more like Ruì, who was mundane, not tall, nor skinny, nor pale like nephrite, just pleasant enough to look nice.
Opposite, Sun Liyun was a perfectly handsome, perfectly educated, perfectly rich kid with HDMs to burn. The young man and his buds were out on the Bund for a good time, probably after studying hard all week, and Kusu had no desire to see the sod arrive at the morgue with nary enough bits for his family to identify.
"Hey, beauty." The young man had begun with the softest white rice pick-up Kusu could imagine, so lame that Kusu had gone into crisis mode. How did this Sun not recognise Lulu's lovely face? He had baulked. His sister wasn't as famous as Gwen, but she had graced the billboards for a few months after the IIUC. And though news of Lulan had died down after she left for training, who could forget a face like his sister's?
Lulan had responded by raising a hand and shaking her head, dismissing the catcall.
Naturally, the Guan-er-dai were undeterred.
"Go away," Lulu had next replied. Kusu recalled feeling very proud of Lulu's self-restraint.
"Beauty, give us some face." Sun Liyun then proceeded to the next stage of auto-erotic asphyxiation without even a wrinkle of the brow. "So that you know, I am Sun Liyun."
Watching Sun's face filling with hope, Kusu had decided he wanted to save the young man's bright future from himself.
"Mr Sun's fame is well known!" Kusu had raised a glass of water, for neither he nor Ruì liked alcohol. "Unfortunately, we are waiting for an important guest. If Mr Sun doesn't mind, please permit us to grace your presence at a later date."
"Kusu Li." Kusu had bowed his head respectfully but not in subservience. "Of Mount Hua."
Technically, he and Lulan were no longer linked to the Clan. Still, as Elder Li was now digging for ore in some Orange Zone and the Clan had given its "Outer Sect" prodigies unanimous support, Kusu was well within his right to wield the Clan's title.
Thankfully, Sun had bought the bill. Raising a glass of amber liquid, he toasted Lulan. "Well met. I've always admired Mount Hua. To your health."
Turning to his sister, Kusu had furiously wriggled his eyebrows.
Sighing, Lulan raised her liquor and drank.
Kusu was half-way to relief when, to his complete chagrin, Sun's companions then approached with smirking fox-faces, each holding a glass.
He wanted to facepalm.
How many ways did these people want to die? Did they write wills before coming to the House of M?
"Hey, you— why don't you drink to Brother Sun's health as well?" One of Sun's female companions had pointed to Ruì.
Ruì's face had grown instantly two shades paler. While working for Gwen's holdings in the House of M and overseeing Tonglv and Ruxin, she knew her position well. Outside of the company, however, an NoM was an NoM.
"I don't think Brother Sun cares for a common—" someone behind Sun had hollered half-way before suddenly realising the lack of mana radiating from Ruì's body. "Wocao! She's an NoM!"
"Whahaha— they brought that here?"
"Why is there an NoM in the VIP box?" someone protested. "Kick the filth out!"
"You sure know how to play, Brother Li," another voice roared. "With a sister like that, you're still turning to NoMs?"
Against the jeering, Ruì had assumed a mousy demeanour, her eyes studying the floor.
Before Kusu could stop her, Lulan had picked up the glass that one of the men had placed on the table and threw the contents in a wide arc toward Ruì's tormentors. Instantly, a half-dozen Mage Shields sprung up, protecting their casters from the cocktail but at the cost of no small chaos among the clamouring crowd.
Kusu had then positioned himself in front of Lulan, knowing that a single Shattering Sword from his sister would reduce this crowd of future "leaders" into strips of Dragon-carp bait.
Please don't attack! Kusu had prayed to his ancestors. He wasn't sure if he could tank the spells from these Guan-er-dai with his implements, but he knew they would not survive if Ruì so much as lost a single hair.
"Esteemed Guests!" Thankfully, the voice of Magus Yuu, overseer of the duelling arena, had burst around them like a Fire Bolt. "If you have grievances, look no further than to the arena. Should you fight out here, I hope you can face the consequences."
They had all turned to gaze at the wizened old organiser. Yuu was a veteran and a well-connected Abjurer with actual skill; how else could he become the custodian of a place as rowdy as the House of M's night club?
Before Sun Liyun could address the respectable Magus, Lulan had Misty Stepped into the arena without a word, her expression a dense slab of cold iron hungering for hot flesh.
"You— you— you and you." His sister had raised her sword hand. "Come at once."
Kusu had figured that Yuu must know Lulan's identity, for the triage Mages were already standing ready beside the duelling box. At the same time, Yuu's nonchalance also gave Kusu a good idea of what Sun Liyun was worth and how influential his family may be. Additionally, the Magus likely knew Lulan's spells— for though Elemental Magic could be dampened and made harmless, the "mass" of a raw slab of hyper-dense jadeite could not.
"I'll teach this little bitch a lesson, Brother Sun." A young woman, an Evoker by the looks of her, had leapt into the arena in defence of her man. "She'll be kowtowing in no time."
And the rest was spleen-splattering history.
Kusu knew the only way to save Sun now was if Gwen arrived to change his sister's mood. Once again, he raised the Message Device to his face, dialling in the Glyph code with a flourish.
The sound came from the entryway.
"THANK MAO!" Kusu almost burst into tears. "Gwen! Miss Song! Over here! Over here!"
Responding to Kusu's wild gesticulation, all eyes turned toward the silhouettes descending the stairs.
With Gwen's arrival, Kusu's worried eyes ignited with hope.
That undeniable, alluring mien!
That poise and presence!
That air of confidence!
In all of Shanghai, there was no equal to the face of SPAM.
In front of Gwen, two grim-faced Mages with the aura of throat-slitting razors opened the path for their newly arriving guest. Besides the leading sorceress, Kusu hailed the appearance of Mina Wang, heir to Wang Enterprises, juxtaposed by the half-hunched, swaggering "Wassap!" that was her brother. Behind the trio, Kusu could see that the Song's rising star, Percy Song, moodily followed.
"Gwen!" Lulan's murderous mood changed at once, erasing Sun and Co's presence from her mind. With a heel-stomp, his sister Misty Stepped from Sun Liyun's circle to greet their saviour, her ponytail wagging with happiness.
Gwen embraced his sister before Lulan could bow. "Lulu! I've missed you as well. What's happened? Oh hey, there's Ruì as well. Hi Ruì, good work with Russo!"
Ruì stood and bowed.
Kusu turned to regard Sun Liyun and saw that the young man had gone completely white. The heir to the Sun Clan might accept that a beating from his sister was at least an honourable way out, but he now faced the Shanghai spokeswoman for SPAM.
For the city's established families, the Devourer of Shenyang was an impressive title but not one that gave them pause. After all, it wasn't as though Gwen could unleash her Shoggoth in Shanghai. But as the victor of Tonglv and one who had single-handedly uprooted the Fung Clan with its millennia-old roots, there was a standing order to keep a wide berth between themselves and the Worm Handler of Fudan.
"Trouble?" Gwen looked to her bodyguards, who began the process of removing Sun Liyun.
"It was a misunderstanding!" Impressively, Sun made his choice before Gwen's men even opened their mouths. Striding forward toward Ruì, the young man bowed from the waist, then remained stooped as he spoke. "We had no idea Miss Li and her friend were affliiates of the granddaughter of Chairman Song. With all my heart, I humbly beg for forgiveness. To show sincerity, we are willing to accept any punishment!"
Ruì looked to Gwen, then Lulan, then to Kusu. "I don't mind..."
"Well said, Master Sun," Kusu interjected before Gwen or his sister could speak. "Take care that this never happens again. Now go."
"Thank you!" Sun gave Kusu a nod of gratitude as he passed. Wasting no time, he gathered up his entourage, then quickly skulked from the scene, leaping up the velvet steps with the aid of Expeditious Retreat.
Kusu exhaled. It wasn't easy saving a whole Clan from self-annihilation.
Opposite, Gwen chuckled, then held his diminutive sister's hand with a self-satisfied smile.
Around the club, those whose curiosity overruled the warning from their elders stayed, while the other half of the guests chose to relocate to other parts of the club.
"Well done, Sis." Percy laughed when Gwen's expression grew concerned. "I haven't seen a room clear this fast since someone in the barracks said they found a bite-mark on their ankle."
Gwen gave her brother the evil eye before turning to Lulan. "Wow, Lulu, you look fantastic. That aura! And the mana! Your growth is incredible! What were you doing just now? Showing the youngsters here the ropes?"
"Ryxi has taught me well," Lulan said, then without waiting for the ice to thaw, his sister retracted her fingers from Gwen's grasp, then delivered the cargo that had been stowed rent-free in her mind. "Gwen, I want you to duel me seriously."
The Devourer of Shenyang stared at his guileless sister. Kusu understood her dismay, for Gwen had not even warmed her buttocks before being asked to fight with all her might.
Gwen stared at Lulan, her eyes measuring the Sword Mage from head to toe. The Omni-Mage must have read his sister's sincerity, for the next moment, she gave her consent.
"Alrighty then." The girl grinned. "Let's see how far my Lulu has come."
"Miss Song." One of the men accompanying Gwen coughed politely. "You're supposed to stay out of trouble."
"Just stretching my legs." Gwen smiled back. "Besides, Lulu's a teammate and a future employee. We're revising our training."
Kusu observed their saviour, sensing that something about Gwen had changed. Both physically and mentally, she seemed in tune with her now older self. During the start of the IIUC, Kusu always felt that the youthful mien possessed by Gwen did not suit her mature presence. Now, Gwen appeared more comfortable in her skin.
"Oxford or Harvard?" Gwen asked once she was inside, kicking off her heels and stowing them as she twirled her long hair into a tightly knotted bun, revealing the slender nape of her neck.
"Harvard." Lulan Misty Stepped to join her, likewise removing her shoes, one heel still dripping blood. "Use Caliban or Ariel, and buff how you will."
Kusu felt his chest constrict. "Lulu, be careful."
"We'll stop when it hurts," Gwen's assurance was not very reassuring.
Those spectators who had not left by now gathered close, happy that they were going to witness a battle to brag about in their old age but also wary that should the barriers fail, there would be no old age to worry over. But they stayed nonetheless, firstly because they were young and reckless, and secondly because of the hormones fogging their brains. It was a phenomenon that Kusu understood, for no one drew eyeballs as readily as the Devourer other than his sister, and now the both of them were in one spot.
"Caliban! Ariel!" Gwen conjured forth her Familiars. To Kusu's untrained senses, Ariel manifested as its IIUC self. Conversely for Caliban, Kusu felt the snake had grown by magnitudes.
"Shaa!" Caliban rushed for Lulan.
"Cali! Back!" Gwen commanded the creature. "Fight first, then hug!"
"Agility! Strength! Constitution!" Their IIUC vice-captain matched Lulan buff-for-buff, missing only Lulan's signature Iron Skin. "And one more thing so you can go all-out— Sanguine Mantle!"
In front of a wide-eyed audience, the Void Sorceress produced a vial of scarlet serum, unstoppered the contents, then released a free-floating ball of liquid to hover about her person.
"New spell?" Lulan assumed a fighting stance, one that Kusu recognised as the opening form to Huashan's Plum Blossom.
"New Abjuration," Gwen answered as an insidious, inky Void-sphere enveloped the contents of the vial. "Whatever happens, until my vitality's depleted, it'll keep me on my feet, so feel free to go hard. Should I start, or do you want to go first?"
"We'll go at the same time."
"Alright." Gwen raised her hand. "Ariel! Lightning Bolt!"
The invocation half-formed before Gwen had even finished the incantation, demonstrating a passive Affinity that bordered on complete mastery. At once, twin bolts of Lightning leapt from Ariel's horns while from Gwen's fingertips, a bright blue arc erupted into a thigh-thick bolt of pure power, turning the dark club incandescent.
"Plum Blossom Sword— Verdant Spring!" Lulan announced her attack for the benefit of her competitor. Unlike most Western magic, the esoteric arts of the warrior ascetics focused entirely on internal discipline, striking with the force of a cyclone but the subtlety of a gentle breeze.
The moment the Lightning blazed, Lulan was gone, leaving only a slab of iron to act as a grounding rod for Gwen's assault.
In the blink of an eye, his sister closed the distance between them, her hand forming the somatic incantation for summoning Huashan's signature sword strike.
"Shield!" Gwen's famous double-glazed barrier erupted in the form of an enormous semi-dome large enough to keep two Lulans at bay, taking full advantage of her abnormally large VMI. The unorthodox defence was enough to catch Lulan flat-footed, as she hadn't anticipated Gwen to spellshape her barrier. "Void Seeker!"
The speed at which Gwen completed her incantations left Lulan little room for hesitation. In quick succession, she stepped on Gwen's shield, using the hardened barrier as a springboard to dodge the incoming chakram of Void.
"Parry!" A rough slab of half-formed iron ate up the target-seeking disk of Void. "Heart-Seeking Sword!"
Such was the speed of Lulan's spell that the sound of the blade striking the double-glazed barrier happened a split-second after her invocation.
"Good work, Lulu." Gwen remained unmoved. "Cali! Ariel, Ball Lightning!"
"Shaa— Shaa!" Cali came on in its spider form with all its limbs waving in the air, sending the guests recoiling from the barrier wall with ashen faces.
On Lulan's side, a surge of Transmutation in the form of "ki" informed Kusu that his sister was getting serious. A brief vision of a six-headed Naga formed behind Lulan, visualising the Spirit inhabiting her Astral Body.
Behind his sister, as though Lulu possessed additional eyes, two blades of jadeite three meters long pierced the encroaching Caliban, momentarily pinning the spider Fiend to the floor like a specimen.
In front, four rods of jadeite as thick as Gwen's waist, half-mixed with rusty chunks of oxidised iron intercepted the barrage of target-seeking electricity, giving Lulan enough time to perform half-a-dozen Misty steps around the closeted battle area. Once Lulan was confident Gwen grew disorientated, she let loose the spell she had been nursing.
Since her training, Ryxi had absolved Lulan of much of the pastiche arts borrowed from Spellcraft, modern magic and Huashan's remaining manuscripts. The long-ranged spell that Gwen had devised for her friend, Panzerschreck, had now become amalgamated into its final form— The Flower Shattering Sword.
"Dimension Door!" Gwen must not have possessed the confidence she could stomach the killing blow with her Shield alone, and so re-appeared nearer the ceiling mid-invocation. Her choice proved correct, for the sword first stabbed into the double barrier with a Clang! Then erupted into ten thousand shards of razor-sharp jadeite.
To buy time, Caliban directly transformed into its Big Bird form, sending the spectators reeling while simultaneously parrying the fragments with its metallic feathers.
"Ee!" Yet another twin-bolted pair of Lightning flashed across the area, near-striking Lulan as she twisted and turned through the air with supernatural agility. Having perfected the step-formation technique from Ryxi, his sister's movements grew too erratic to predict, especially with her at-will usage of Misty Step.
"Petal-Plucking Sword!" Lulan extended an arm. The Spirit of the jadeite Naga grew fully visible for a brief moment.
"Blade Barrier!" Gwen's spell and Lulu's sword strike manifested concurrently, sending the whirling generators containing the battle into a frenzy.
From nothing, a vast array of spinning blades of force, now wreathed in lightning, materialised both on Lulan's path of assault and her retreat, instantly transforming Lulan's forward momentum into self-defeat. Ahead of her, Gwen hovered, but in her way were three sets of rapidly spinning, star-shaped force-swords. Behind her as well as everywhere in the oval were these same rotating mincers, each crackling with electricity. What's worse, below her awaited Big Bird Caliban, its neck distended, waiting for her to lose momentum.
But if Lulan forfeited now, then she wouldn't be Lulan.
"Lulu!" Kusu saw his sister enclose her fist, pulling the blades closer so that they wrapped her like a suit of armour. Then, maintaining her head-long rush, she charged in-between two sets of whirling blades.
SPAK! SPAK! CLANG!
CLANG! SPAK! SPAK!
An ear-grating array of noises denoting the meeting of an immovable object and an unstoppable force, throwing such a shower of bright sparks that the interior of the underground abode once more turned incandescent.
"Lulu!" Kusu shouted. "Control yourself!"
Though Gwen had resolved much of Lulu's chi issues regarding the Heart of Iron, Kusu's sister had lived with the excess Yang energy in her body long enough to turn her bane into a boon. Even so, there was a cost; compared to the others in their Clan, Lulu's berserker form was as pronounced in power as it was burdensome on her psyche.
When finally the light died down enough for all to see, Lulan emerged from between the blades, her clothes in tatters, her skin whipped and welted and her hair a whole crop shorter than before.
Kusu winced. He liked Lulu with long hair, as did Ryxi, who liked to dress Lulu in moon-silk attires from the Tang and Ming dynasties.
"Shield!" Gwen had not anticipated that Lulan would rush through a deadly, Mage-mincing barrier. "Lightning Bolt!"
Lulan discarded her sword shell, opting for a quick finish.
Just as Gwen's barrier formed, four more sword-slabs smashed into the dome, turning the surface opaque.
This time, Lulan chose to eat the Lightning Bolts to maintain her forward momentum. Watching the hysterical upper-tier energy dance across his sister's singed skin, Kusu felt his organs grow suddenly old.
But the sacrifice was enough for Lulan to reach the double-glazed shield. "Shivering Blossoms!"
Kusu's throat constricted.
When had his sister grown so great?
Gwen was arguably the most peerless Mage he had ever worked with, possessing the largest mana pool known for someone not already a Magister.
Yet, Lulu was going to make the hope of the Mageocracy yield in a one-on-one battle? Were the girls not best friends, Kusu would almost imagine that Lulu was scheming to use the Devourer of Shenyang to prop up a reputation for herself, or at least put herself in a position to promote China's burgeoning nationalism.
The "Blossoms" struck.
With a sound of suddenly shattering glass, Gwen's Shield disintegrated. Lulan reached in and conjured another sword, this one just long enough to hover an inch away from Gwen's quivering white collarbones.
"Do you yield?" Lulan huffed, her chest rising and falling rapidly as her organs worked furiously to replenish the energy drained by the rapid series of non-stop movements.
"Do you?" Gwen smirked in turn. "Look down."
Kusu looked up at the same time as Lulan looked down.
The air shimmered, then Caliban's Spider Form re-appeared.
Gwen wasn't flying, but instead standing on Caliban's segmented torso.
Presently, just as Lulan had a sword to Gwen's throat, Caliban's all-consuming maw was less than half a meter and a split-second away from dragging Lulan into the abyss with an array of hissing tentacles.
"How?!" Ruì gasped, unable to help herself.
Both Mina and Tao made their awe known, as did Gwen's guards.
Below, the Big Bird Caliban shimmered, performed a convincing "Shaa!", then faded from view.
An illusion! The crowd murmured in turn.
Still, who was the victor? Kusu wondered, then realised the stupidity behind his naive conjecture. Hadn't Gwen had earlier activated something called Sanguine Mantle? Assuming the spell was anywhere near as stout as her shield, the girls' exchange wouldn't be at all equal. At worst, Gwen would be maimed and incapacitated, while Lulan would have taken a long trip down to tentacle town.
"I lost." Lulan retracted her sword with an expression of self-loathing.
"You held back," Gwen said. "No Vibration Sword earlier? You could have cut through my shield anytime. My Mantle didn't activate, but who knows if you're able to slice through it."
"You held back on using Void Spells," Lulan said, shaking her head. "If that had been Void Bolts and a Void-aligned Blade Barrier…"
"We're not duelling to the death, Lulu." Gwen unsummoned her Blade Barrier, but left her Familiars. Once the girls alighted, Caliban and Ariel both rushed to comfort Lulan, giving her face a tongue-bath even as they made figure-eights between her legs.
"I wanted to be of use," Lulan mourned her loss, both hands keeping Gwen's pets at bay.
"You ARE of use, or will be," Gwen assured her, joining the huddle. "Gods, Lulu, you have no idea how kick-ass that was. I was sweating buckets! Buckets! Touch my back; I am drenched!"
With Gwen's kind words, Kusu saw that his sister's expression took on a note of undisguised happiness. As expected, his Lulu was no match for the wily capitalist.
"I'll go back to training," Lulan promised. "I'll get better. Learn more Sword spells from Ryxi! I'll work twice as hard!"
"Don't work too hard." Gwen wrapped her arm around Lulu's neck. "Jeebus, my Sanguine Armour's all sticky. And your dress is ruined."
"I don't mind—"
"I know you don't, but I mind, and Kusu minds..." Gwen shot him a wink as she materialised a towel. So intense was the battle and its aftermath that it was only now that Kusu realised his sister was showing an awful lot of skin. He did have spare clothes for Lulu, but to walk out now and bring out a set of women's tracksuits may engender some very awkward rumours.
A Dimension Door later, the pair was back in the lounge area.
"The change room is this way." Magus Yuu and the staff from the House of M was ready to wait on the two women, eager to satisfy any requests they might make.
"Good. Come along, Lulu. I got you a half-ring worth of goods from London. Elf-made dresses, Lulu. I saved you a set. You'll never guess who they used to belong to..."
"I'll help." Mina left the VIP box and joined the pair, leaving Kusu standing alone with Percy and Gwen's thuggish-looking escorts. "Are we picking the dresses now?"
With his blood pressure finally down to a safe level, Kusu found himself a seat. Opposite, Percy nursed a glass of wine, his expression a mask of deep thought. Ruì blended into the background through an NoM's innate ability to seem unassuming, while Gwen's guards stood on either side of the women's change rooms, drawing curious looks from the remaining audience.
"Your sister's special." Kusu surmised he had found a kindred spirit in Percy, who also shared complicated feelings for his overachieving sister. "Must be tiresome having a sister like Gwen."
"Yes," Percy mumbled tiredly, his evasive eyes telling Kusu everything he needed to know. "It's a hell of a thing."
"But you wouldn't trade her for anyone else, right?" Kusu laughed, the handsome vision of Lulan duelling Gwen playing over and over again in his mind, making his chest burst with pride. "I sure wouldn't."
"I wouldn't trade my sister for any of yours either." Tao looked around smugly when Percy appeared to mull over Kusu's proclamation. "Mina's the best sister ever, she's taking over the family business, did you know? I am FREE, BITCHES! How's that for a great sister? Eh?"
"To great sisters." Kusu raised a glass of rice wine.
"To our bitch'n sisters!" Tao cracked a can he earlier swiped from Sun's table. "Come on, Percy, grab a beer!"
Sighing deeply, Percy raised an unopened can. "To Gwen."