The whole thing feels like a cult, Gwen cynically assessed the assemblage of students and staff. All around her, the cohort separated into rows standing before ten crystal spheres. The 'Awakening Crystals' reminded her of E-meters she saw once on Castlereagh St.
These students, who had already had their affinity affirmed, were being tested for their aptitude for different Schools of Magic. The procedure was simple enough. A student stood in front of the stone and placed their hand atop the sigil sensing crystal. The crystal then expanded its magical energies after completing the circuit, sending mana back into the recipient. Whatever Glyph the indicator reciprocated then betokened the student's proficiency in a School of Magic.
At least that's what her alter-self recalled.
According to her memories, official Spellcraft theorems privileged a trifactor of conditions impacting a Mage's talents: their natural affinity for a particular School of Magic; the Element they attuned to, and finally their natural born intelligence for manipulating Spellcraft.
Either of the three could be developed later in life, but as humans had limited lifespans and dubious willpower, those born with a headstart rose to the top of Spellcraft society with accelerated ease.
As far as she knew, there were seven primary schools of Spellcraft: Evocation, Transmutation, Abjuration, Conjuration, Divination, Enchantment, and Illusion. Each had their specialities, and each manifested a particular arcane phenomenon unique enough to be called a ‘school’. Other schools existed but were unique to bloodlines, cultures, and religious mythos.
“OH MY God, Gwenie, I am nervous as hell.” Yue clutched onto Gwen’s arm with a force rivalling that of the proverbial koala, known for having a grip strength many times its body mass.
“What do you want to awaken as?” Gwen shook herself from the dizzying remembrance. Spellcraft, Schools of Magic, Monsters, none of it made any sense to her.
“Evocation of course,” Yue squealed. “The cardinal rule of all magic is firepower, followed by firepower, and finally, some more firepower!”
“That would be pretty nice,” Gwen answered blankly. “Firepower for sure.”
“When we go out there during the Field Trip, we can blast away everything with impunity!” Yue’s expression was dreamy and hopeful, her face flushed with enthusiasm.
“... You know, going outside the Shield Barrier, kicking ass…”
“And KILL SHIT!” Yue made an evil looking grin, probably already dreaming of carcasses flinging through the air after a particularly robust pyrotechnical display.
“Muscle-headed idiots,” a voice interjected beside them.
The speaker was a bronzed-skinned teen wearing a uniform one size too small. Her tartan skirt exposed her upper thighs, and they could see her bra strap against the taut-fabric of her white blouse. Her hair was dyed with a pink tip, though her natural colour would have been an alluring auburn brunette.
“What are you looking at?” the girl snapped.
Gwen felt struck by a strange sense of déjà vu. That catty demeanour was almost endearing. She wracked her brain until starcrossed memories of two lifetimes converged, revealing that the hot-topic with the resting bitchface was Debora.
Holy shit, Gwen mouthed silently. Debora Jones! Good grief - that takes her back! As far as she could recollect, Debora was the faction leader of what was dubbed the bimbos by the egg heads, and ‘hotties’ by the boys in general. She had been friends with Gwen during primary school, but their friendship drifted apart once puberty kicked in. In her old life, Debora was obsessed with Gwen because they were both as tall as one another, even more so than the late-blooming boys. When Gwen’s parents divorced, Debora had ceased to be a priority.
"Debbie-" Gwen began, but Yue was way ahead of her.
“I bet you’ll awaken in the school of the whore…” Yue remarked rudely. Her eyes scanned Debora's scandalous uniform. "Slut."
Gwen stared at Yue with genuine shock. Only now was she recalling that Yue was a mad dog when it came to cat fights. The petite Asian girl had a temperament like forty-grit sandpaper. She wasn't one to mince words when insults were needed. Her fiery disposition and foul mouth were matched only by her bust.
“My uncle and my father are both Transmuter Mages,” Debora retorted effortlessly. “What about yours? Conjuration specialising in boats? People like you should go back to where you come from.”
“This stupid Gweilo…” Yue let loose a string of unwelcome syllables that was half Chinese and somewhat English, “I'll awaken as a fire Evoker and burn your whore (whole) house down.”
She could probably do it. Gwen perspired nervously. Damn Yue, you scary!
“You chicks gonna start pulling some hair, ripping some blouses?”
came another voice from beside them.
It was a boy with an utterly forgettable face, an acquaintance of Yue’s from the same primary school, one of those faces you never bothered to speak to on the bus. His eyes moved between the girls lasciviously. When he gawked at Gwen, her gaze made him choke on his next words.
“Piss off you loser.” Debora scowled cattily.
“Come on people, make or break moment here.” A Prefect stepped in between them. “You’re all nervous, I get it, but don't forget your humility and manners as students of Blackwattle.”
Good luck with that, Gwen mused at the Prefect's words. Blackwattle was a Government run school. There were no distinguishing hallmarks other than a campus that overlooked the harbour of Sydney's industrial zone. Most of the time, the campus smelled faintly of fish.
"Go fuck yourself," Yue added testily before turning away. The boy's eyes met the Prefect's, who shrugged.
Gwen and Yue watched as students approached the dais, legs quivering and fingers shaking, placing their hands on the crystal.
Flashes of indistinct colour indicated schools of magic and elemental affinities, following which the students had their I.D Cards registered after a brief vis-a-vis with the Instructors.
Debora’s name came, and she stepped forward towards the crystal. One could see that despite all her bluster, her well-exposed stalks still shook from anxious anticipation.
The surfer girl placed her hands on the crystal and waited. From Gwen's ignorant perspective, a glow entered into Debora's hand and permeated into her body. Then it recycled through the crystal, causing the stone to illuminate. After a few moments, the glass atop the device glowed with a glyph indicating the School of Transmutation, its soft brown halo indicating an Earthen affinity.
Debora signed with relief, though she still felt a little disappointed that she was no more talented than her father predicted. She had wanted the School of the Evoker or Conjurer, to be a bright star upon the battlefield, a blazing tempest of power and fury.
“Your turn, Shorty." Debora looked over at Yue before walking from the platform.
“What an annoying bimbo,” Yue blustered, trying to mask the demons wreaking havoc in her chest.
“Good luck.” Gwen’s own heart was pounding against her ribcage, quickening her breath and flushing her cheeks bright pink. From what she could gather so far, this Awakening ordeal was an extraordinary moment of exceeding importance.
A few more students came and went.
When it was Yue’s turn, she made her way to the top of the platform and placed her hand on the assigned crystal. The same glow enveloped her small frame; Yue squirmed as the mana completed its circuit. When the radiance returned, it became a blazing glow of ochre, so bright that it illuminated half the auditorium.
A collective gasp emitted from the assembly.
“Evocation with a high tier Fire talent!” an Instructor called out incredulously. “It's tier 4 affinity at least!”
The news was both welcome and remarkable for the pedestrian populous of Blackwattle. Generally speaking, only bloodlines that had generations of Mages who practised the same style was more prone to producing high-affinity talents. Those with affinities often inter-married, generating greater chances of begetting offspring with ever more prominent sympathies for a school or element.
As far as anyone knew, Yue was a regular migrant fleeing the Magical Beasts. For Gwen, the shock was doubly so, as she knew Yue's mother was a NoM. Her friend's common heritage was precisely why she was causing such a stir, could Yue's Awakening mean the rise of a future House?
Observing Yue's serendipitous stardom seemed to trigger another bout of anxiety within Gwen. She was glad that a single piece of toast was all she had for breakfast.
The room erupted into applause. Yue gave a smug look toward the red-faced Debora, who quickly left to speak to her coordinator.
Yue’s fire affinity inferred that with sufficient training, her fire spells would be less costly and more powerful. Though not precisely stellar at lower tiers, should Yue make it to the rank of Magus or Magister, her spells would be stronger, more efficient, and manifest faster than her peers. As for her immediate future, her greatest advantage lied in the fact that Evocation Mages could hunt monsters from the get-go. For Yue, the future was flaming bright.
“Congratulations Yue!” Gwen was happy for her friend but found herself thrust aside by the crowd of students and instructors who surrounded the newly crowned Queen of Flames.
“Evoker, tier 1 Water.”
“Oh, God! Please give me another go! I don’t want to be a fireman…”
“Abjuration, tier 1 Earth!”
“No reaction! I am sorry.”
“Transmutation, tier 2 Air! An Air Mage!”
“Yes! Just what I wanted!”
“Conjuration! Tier 1 water!”
“Oh, hell yeah!”
The crowd murmured and congratulated the newly minted Conjurer. Conjuration Mages were extremely powerful once they found their Familiars. In a place with as much water as Coastal Sydney, a Water Conjurer could go far.
Gwen felt another bout of irritation stripping her stomach-lining. According to her alter-ego, one's Primary school of magic determined the most synergetic school that would be available to a caster. To train one’s second school required painstaking repetition, and only those with the talent, experience, and luck of surviving mortal combat ever attained the rare opportunity to master a school beyond the first.
Most Mages remained between tiers 1 to 5 in a single School, happy with the gainful employment offered by the state's many institutions. The risking of life and limb, after all, wasn't for everyone. The world outside the city might be full of monsters, but behind man's Barrier Shields, they could live in relative peace.
“Gwen Song,” called out a voice that sounded to Gwen like a death knell.
The moment of truth, Gwen muttered to herself.
She made her way to the platform and placed her hand on the crystal.
“Relax,” advised the Instructor.
You RELAX, Gwen thought, I don't even know what the hell I am doing.
Gwen's hand touched the cold stone. In an instant, she felt herself on the verge of collapse. Her clammy perspiration glued her blouse to her pallid skin. She had no idea what was going to happen, and her heart felt as though it was trying to shut itself down.
Get a grip! Gwen willed herself, but her body was neglectful of her command; whatever mental synapses that were firing within her physical form was entirely outside of her mental domain.
“Don't be so nervous, place your hand firmly on the crystal,” the instructor commanded.
With vague and trembling fingers, Gwen gripped the crystal.
The mana jolted her hand like a static shock, it travelled red hot up her arm and into her body, invading her spine and filling her veins with molten lead. Her world seemed to expand, her consciousness enveloping the room and extending beyond her physical self. She saw within her mind's eye arcane Sigils that represented the different schools, each cognitive illusions created by her Spellcraft-indoctrinated mind, fabricated by ingrained knowledge to make sense of the senseless, to visualise the incomprehensible.
The mana coiled and flowed, connecting her Astral form to her physical body.
Evocation! Evocation! Evocation! Come on! Gwen's dearest wish was to stick close to Yue until she could figure this world out for herself.
Then a bright Sigil bloomed in her mind.
A golden glow.
But Gwen had no idea what the visions meant.
Then another sigil flared.
A bright and piercing beacon of light.
What the hell does that even mean? Gwen hissed with frustration. Do I touch it? Or talk to it? Isn't there a supposed to be a voice asking me if I want power? What if she had to go to a different campus? Gryffindor! Not Slytherin!
Then another shade, blue this time, and yet another, a bright orange, a purple mauve, a pale lilac-
The Sigils were beyond comprehension now; they seemed to amalgamate into a quickened form of crystalline brightness, brighter than anything Gwen had seen.
The colours blurred and became a nimbus, a twin world of light and darkness. Then as quickly as it began, light and darkness split. There was now two nebulous figures standing side by side.
What the hell is happening? Gwen tried to orientate herself within the light fantastic. What the hell did I Awaken? Some strange new school? I better not have awoken something weird! An abduction by a government agency after less than twenty-four hours in this world would be the worst.
Gwen opened her eyes and looked for her instructor. Maybe he could provide some guidance as to what her affinities are.
“Oh My God!”
“I can’ believe it!”
“Why God? Why not me!!!”
The room became wild with excitement.
Though it wasn't for Gwen.
Gwen’s instructor regarded her colourless crystal.
“We have a Biomancer!” someone positively shrieked. “Elvia can tap into the Plane of Positive Energy!”
A green glow was fading from the other side of the auditorium, the student body crowding around a small girl even shorter than Yue. From her timid posture and gentle face, Gwen recognised the girl as Elvia Lindholm.
The bookish blonde girl had been the invisible sort, though now her presence captivated the auditorium.
Clerics were a rare bird in any neck of the woods as it required simultaneous affinities for both Evocation and Conjuration Schools. The essential caveat though was possessing the Positive Elemental trait. Elvia - made special by a twist of fate, had become a cherished class of individuals existing beyond social strata, for the Frontier was always short on healers.
“O happy day!” the Principal harkened loudly. "Congratulations! Miss Lindholm!"
There had not been a natural healer in the school for almost a decade. Having a healer like Elvia meant Blackwattle would receive a funding boost. The administration would have to hire a specialist to teach her, and the Education Department would be obliged to provide the very best. A school with two healers, a master and student duo! They would be the envy of almost every other school in the district! Usually, only the Selective class of schools had trained arcane healers. The regular school nurse was just a quasi-Cleric trained in applying remedy gels and administering potion-injectors.
Back in the real world, Gwen's instructor faced her with an awkward, apologetic expression.
“I am sorry Gwen.”
Her crystal possessed a transparent glow that was more daylight than any distinct colour.
“You have very low affinity…” the man noted. "Furthermore, I don't see a Sigil or an element...”
What? What do you mean you don't see a Sigil? I saw them! I saw all of them! Those squiggly worm-like arcane marks, right? The things that looked like hieroglyphics married into the Hebrew alphabet.
“It's strange but not unheard of,” the Instructor continued. "We're all made differently."
The instructor’s unwelcome decree was like a death sentence.
Gwen felt a cold shiver of dreadful premonition hang over the nape of her neck like a raised guillotine.
“Well, the transparent nimbus shows that you can tap into the Planes and channel mana,” the Instructor stated with a tone of surety. "But you don't have any affinity, it seems. I am afraid you have what we call a null-base."
Not synergistic? Gwen searched through the brief impulse of her memory.
In a moment the anxiety attack that had been kept at bay by her curiosity returned with a crippling force, striking her as though a concussive blow had been dealt. Gwen had to hold onto the pedestal to keep herself steady.
Synergy was a matter that related to how fast a Mage was able to progress in their schools. It also determined the variability of hybrid magic that Mages mastered as they choose their second, and eventually third schools. A poor synergy meant poor mana conversion efficiency. No matter how hard Gwen trained, she would be far behind those with innate talent.
"Careful now." The instructor arrested Gwen's shoulder.
A flood of memories assaulted her conscious. Her family was still reeling from a messy separation; her father was a useless waste of space. Her mother had fully expected Gwen to awaken in something rare and precious.
What was this absurd plot twist? What difficulty had her rebirth been cranked? Try as she might, the compelling force of conditioned biochemistry held fast her trembling body.
Wasn’t she supposed to be overpowered? Why isn’t everyone shouting and screaming that she was the Girl who Lived?
Gwen beheld at her instructor, dumbfounded.
“I am sorry Gwen,” the man repeated with a sympathetic face. "But it looks like you’re just a common Mage.”