“So, what do I do?” Gwen's trembling lips begged for an answer.
By now, her eyes were moist with the distress of her devastating evaluation. The pitiful look she projected gave the instructor such a pang of guilt that he felt his iron mien falter. After all, the girl's future was nothing if not bleak.
But the crystal told no lies.
Whatever it had presented at its conclusion, was whatever the poor sorceress drew for her lot in life.
“You should be able to cast basic spells without issues,” the Instructor attempted to soothe her confusion with a delicate tone. "Having no affinity also means you have no real drawbacks for accessing different schools, so you could work on being a utility Mage, maybe a machine operator?"
The look of chilling despair on the girl's frail, white face bespoke her desolation.
“Look.” He glanced over at Yue and Elvia, still being congratulated by her fellow students. “You’re close friends with the Fire girl right?”
“Yes Sir,” Gwen replied, still stunned by her commonness.
What was the point of being taken from her perfectly fine life, only to be thrust into a mediocre role in the midst of a eugenic apartheid? Gwen couldn't help but be reminded of an old Bard's musing - that as flies to wanton boys are mortals to the Gods, they pull our wings for sport. Was it mere chance that she was plucked from the apex of her life in Sydney and deposited into this depressing canyon of despair? If there was 'sport' in it, it was certain at her expense.
“I'll put you down as Evocation since you will have access to it. It's also the cheapest and most time efficient to train, but from here on out it's going to be just you. The school will provide what we can of course, but…”
The look on the instructor’s told her more than she needed to know. It was no concern for the school to include her as a low-tier student. All low tier students received the same resources anyway until they could somehow distinguish themselves. She would be one more in a sea of nameless faces that dotted the place like the decor.
“Thank you, Sir,” Gwen answered finally, unsure if her Instructor had helped her or prolonged her suffering.
The Instructor nodded and jotted down in his scribe pad her new classification.
Gwen Song - Tier 1 Evoker.
The rest of the grade soon passed their examination.
The junior Mages were assigned to their respective Schools of Magic.
Gwen was in Class II.
As promised, she was in Yue's class. To their surprise, the new darling of the grade, Elvia Lindholm, was also included in class II.
Thankfully, Debora was in Class III.
Looking around, Gwen saw vaguely familiar faces who ignored her. The snub was unpleasant. Her unique family drama over the last two years meant that she seldom had time for friends. For now, however, she had bigger problems, like the fact that she was a wayward soul stolen from across space and time then untimely deposited in a delicate body.
She was one amongst thirty students who were Evokers. It was, after all, the staple of Mages everywhere. Beside the group were the rarer Mages, an assortment of Abjurers, a few Transmuters, two low-affinity Diviners, one low-affinity Enchanter, and so on.
The specialists who emerged were:
Yue, tier 4 Fire Evoker
Jasmine, tier 2 Ice Evoker
Owen, tier 2 Earthen Enchanter
Juergen, tier 2 Water Illusionist
Patrick, tier 1 Water Conjurer
And of course, the creme de crop, Elvia the Tier 2 Biomancer.
The whole thing seemed absurd to Gwen, whose old world was driven by the basic tenet that everyone got a fair shake of the sauce bottle.
It was all well and good if one won the genetic lottery, but what about the NoMs? What about people like her whose talent sucked? Were they doomed to be forever denied a spot in the sun?
She wanted to say something snide, to express the displeasure and frustration that was ripping her chest apart - but she became struck by yet another epiphanic revelation.
Humanity wasn't alone in this world.
This world never had significant wars fought between humans. The Great War was against an Undead incursion that saw the loss of almost twenty per cent of Humanity's land mass to Necromantic Magical Beings. Conversely, the Second World War happened in the 70s, triggered by the awakening of an ancient dragon. In that bout, Humanity lost another swath of cities and fortresses, effectively cut them off from the Pacific Ocean and isolating man into City-states.
In the three decades since a few fallen cities had been reclaimed and stabilised with barriers, but Man had never escaped the existential crisis of being wiped out by an attack from the great unknown.
In fact, her current residence, the Frontier City of Sydney, was one such reclaimed port of call.
Originally lost in 1940 to the Coral Sea War, the coastal areas of Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne were returned to human dominion by the might of the Commonwealth Mageocracy, lead by an English-Chinese-American expedition. The city became thus repopulated by refugees and volunteer forces from the Commonwealth and the diasporic Micronesian nations.
As with all Frontiers, supplies were constrained. Maintaining the Shield Barriers served as the primary preoccupation of any city. What meagre resources remained were then channelled into the city's systems to be redistributed.
When Gwen underwent her junior examination, she had shown no particular aptitude for Magic and had to attend a regular school that taught basic level theory and prep. That had proved a moment of significant disappointment for her mother, who'd expected her to be a prodigy.
Her brother Percy, conversely, had the making of something special, registering a mana signature as young as 10. He was enrolled currently at The Sydney College of Magic for Boys, a 'Selective' government institution.
All in all, what it meant was that she would be starved of resources, which made escaping mediocrity yet more difficult.
In the old world, Gwen had been no stellar student either, but that never stopped her believing that she would do well in life. There was always merit in networking, taking risks, and catching the right business opportunities.
In this world, however, Gwen felt her insides atrophy.
What the hell was she supposed to do?
Virtually everything in this world relied on some knowledge or affinity for magic. Even the wealthiest of the NoMs served a particular House, Clan or Faction. Self-sufficiency for one without immense talent was nigh-impossible.
“Gwen!” A familiar voice shook her from her nightmarish introspection.
It was Yue.
“We’re both Evokers!!” The jubilant Asian girl hugged Gwen’s arm gleefully, sinking Gwen's bony elbow between pillowy mounds. With a tier 4 affinity, her friend's future was as bright as a fireball.
Was it possible to eke out a living away from Spellcraft?
As with all clickbait rhetoric, the answer was 'no'.
If she gave up Spellcraft, she would be a woman of no importance, a worker ant in a hive of indifferent activity. Without background and lineage, she would be transparent. Her only worth would be as a pretty face in the crowd. When the creatures come for the cities, she would cower in the bunker with the other civilians, awaiting death or salvation.
What kind of stupid life would that be? Who aspires to become cannon fodder, behaving as the wind behaves?
Feeling Yue press against her icy body, Gwen stifled a sigh. She hugged her friend, stealing some of Yue's warmth.
It was stupid to give up so soon, Gwen informed herself. Hadn't the years already taught her that? She wasn't a girl-child out of home for the first time. If she could strike out alone at sixteen and make it then, she could surely do it again. Isn't that what Ol' Blue Eyes said? If I can make it there. I'll make it anywhere?
So what if life gave her lemons?
She's going to make lemon sorbet and key lime pie!
She's going to work it until she spewed blood. No one was born an Archmage. The Path, as they say, was three-quarters risk and reward and one-quarter talent. If she died, then hell, maybe she can wake up back home in her bayside bed!
A plan began to form in her mind.
“I agree, Yue, it's going to be great,” Gwen announced to her friend, who was already daydreaming about the academic term to come.
“Yeah!” Yue grinned from ear to ear, caring not in the slightest the look of dour jealousy and calculated guilt staining Gwen’s brow.
“We’re gonna be the dynamic duo! The Evoker sisters of Blackwattle!” Yue uttered jubilantly.
"Dynamic Duo!" Gwen echoed, swallowing her pride.
The newly formed classes slowly converged into their assigned groups. Now that aptitudes results were assigned and recorded, classes would resume in their new configurations within the week.
For Spellcraft students, boarding on campus was compulsory.
The weekend was so that they got to return home and sort out parental notifications. To Gwen, the ordeal reeked of overreach and authoritarianism. Should a parent deprive the State of a much-needed body, stiff penalties applied.
With a feeling of ambivalence, Gwen said goodbye to an unwilling Yue and returned home to deliver; she supposed, the bad news.
When she once again boarded the tram, Gwen realised the day was still young. As it was still mid-noon, she decided to take the opportunity to engage in some academic research on her current condition.
She switched trams for the State Library, northward of Hyde Park. As a Spellcraft student, her new I.D card allowed her limited viewing of closed resources on magical lore. Not knowing where she must begin, Gwen withdrew several rudimentary tomes to dispel some of her ignorance.
In the past, she had been a troubled high school student, though university quickly saw her talent for academia blossom. She quickly scanned through the necessary volumes and found that she was already familiar with the knowledge. It was more so that she couldn't coax her long-term memory to regurgitate the information she needed. The reading of basic lore, therefore, acted as a trigger to bring forward a decade of schooling.
As knowledge new and old agonisingly conjoined, she came to realise that she was in one hell of a pickle.
First of all, in this world, Spellcraft was kept behind closed doors. Beyond the first few tiers of magic, there existed little to no information on an efficient method of training. Knowledge beyond the high school syllabus was well restricted in a world without Wikipedia, or an Encyclopedia, for that matter. Here was a world where tertiary level knowledge was given exclusively to those who were meritocratically proven.
In the old world, she could Google in five minutes the theory behind nuclear fission. In this world, she had better make it to university before learning anything beyond tier 3 magic.
All in all, there were 9 tiers of Spellcraft, classified as spells, rites, and strategic-class rituals. Thanks to modernised Spellcraft theorems, elemental affinity directly impacted the effect of spells. Moreover, magical phenomena were transmogrified by Spirits and Meta-magic, creating a vast array of spells near-impossible to document.
By the same measure, professional instruction came in the form of Master and Apprentice. For one in Gwen's present condition, the Instructions given to the masses served only to produce fodder Mages necessary for filling gaps in the battle lines. Even when one was lucky enough to employ a Master, few Magisters were willing to teach the secrets of their craft to anyone but a legitimate heir.
Nonetheless, Gwen kept on reading.
Spellcraft was the manifestation of magic.
Casting a spell was achieved via incantations.
Incantations, consisting of both aural and somatic components, served to trigger mnemonic procedures necessary for shaping arcane energies.
The source of a Mage's power was their Astral Soul, perceived in deep meditation as one's Astral Body. An Astra Body's affinity for specific Schools of Magic manifests as Sigils.
One's Sigil shaped the mana from the Elemental Gate. From Fire, Water, Earth, to more exotic powers such as Dust, Magma and even Radiance.
Thus a Spell begins in the form of raw spiritual energy or Mana emitted by the Astral Body. The Mage's elemental affinity supplements this energy through one's Elemental Gate. Simultaneously, invocations shape the energy as it courses through a Mage's mana conduits, exiting the body as the desired phenomena.
The process was simple enough in theory, but the problem lay with the exponential complexity of spells as they increased in tiers.
A tier one spell was a little more than a single incantation. A tier two spell had three incantations. A tier three spell had nine, and tier four spell a whopping twenty-seven. Each existed as a highly complex pattern of thought that must be fluidly delivered through the correct pronounciation. If a spell failed, the Mage suffered mana burn. Usually, failure resulted in dizziness and nausea; with higher spells, the caster could be incapacitated. At its extremity, the invoker may be reduced to a blithering idiot.
In this manner, complex phenomena were incredibly challenging to manifest, as the mana requirement was proportional to the risk of failure and self-harm.
Gwen tried to imagine an Archmage casting a legendary tier nine spell, using old world algorithms to crunch the numbers.
6561 incantations, performed mentally without failure or pause.
By Pythagoras! She sucked in a cold breath of air.
No wonder there were only a handful of these individuals in the world. A dozen Mages out of five billion human beings were capable of becoming arcane Super Computers.
Gwen read on. There was a section on affinity for Schools of Magic.
It would appear that Mages were born with affinities for particular forms of magical phenomena. Evokers, the most common, were adept at releasing energy. Conjurers were best at coalescing and calling forth objects and creatures. Abjurers could create solid matter as barriers.
Any attempt at using a School of Magic in which a Mage lacked affinity would require excessive concentration, risking mana burn.
On the other hand - possessing a Sigil - a talent Mages tend to be born with, made invoking that School of Magic almost second nature.
Gwen closed the book despairingly.
So that was why her instructor had told her that she could only be a utility mage - a third-rate healer, a spotter for the Evoker battalion, a controller for the levitation transports, an operator in the Divination department.
It was because she couldn't cast spells in the heat of combat.
When she turned the page of another Primer, she saw that there was a cantrip on the page before her - something so simple it didn’t even require a Sigil. These simple spells were called Cantrips.
She closed her eyes and began the chant.
In her mind's eye, she felt the flow of mana race through her body, tingling her skin as they passed through her body's conduits.
She envisioned a hand, an invisible astral limb, holding up the book she was reading.
"Mother! Look!" Gwen's moment of serenity was interrupted by the cry of a child.
The hefty tome fell into her lap.
She was still in the midst of the library and that the pale glow of mana emitted by her indiscretion had caused a stir. There was a child who stared at her wild-eyed, pointing a rudely erect finger toward her face.
"Samuel!" The mother retracted the child's hand. "It's rude to point!"
She turned to regard Gwen with a frightened, apologetic face.
"I am sorry, Mistress Mage," she intoned with a voice that trembled.
"It's fine," Gwen promptly responded, her face flushing a shade of scarlet.
“Miss, no phenomena in the public space please.” Came a voice from behind them. It was a librarian whose face scrunched with displeasure.
“I am sorry,” Gwen apologised. "It won't happen again."
"Thank you, Ma'am!" The woman apologised again.
To be so afraid of even a worthless Mage like me, Gwen thought sadly.
This world was a two-tier dystopia. Here the Mages were nobles, and the nonmagical population the serfs. Such was the difference in their natural endowment. She wondered what compelled the Mages to live beside the NoMs? Noblesse oblige?
Though Mages and citizens had agreed to abide by the metaphorical Magna Carta, it was self-evident that Mages occupied a position irreplaceable by the NoMs.
A system of Nobility based upon genetic meritocracy? Gwen shuddered. A eugenicist's wet dream.
Again, her alter-memories reminded her that when survival was at hand, the handing over of power to a small and elite group of individuals seemed natural and unquestionable.
When the creatures of the Wildlands came, a party of combat Mages could defeat a hundred monsters. A single Magus could annihilate a hoard infestation in a single large-scale assault. A Magister could take on a General class magical beast. A Magi? They were more akin to nuclear deterrents in Gwen's old world. They kept the balance of the world and its fragile peace.
We won't nuke your monster Necropolis if you leave our human Metropolis alone, Gwen mused acidulously. To be a Mage in a world where magic ruled.
The aptitude test was a watershed moment; when the Schrödinger's cat was finally out of the box. Most of the time, the cat died. Sometimes, the cat lived. Once in a blue moon, what came out was a Displacer Beast.
But until then, all children were Tabula Rasa.
An announcement echoed across the library.
"We will be closing in ten minutes..."
Gwen closed the books. It was time to face the music.