The week came and went, then it was time for Gwen to go.
With her father's latest lover still lounging in the living room, Gwen felt no obligation for an amicable departure as the last of her boxes were packed.
Her only regret was leaving Percy.
Her brother seemed precociously aware that in a few years, the distance between himself and his sister would only continue to grow. As such, their parting the night before had been bittersweet. The guilt of having left her little brother in her past life, combined with the sentimentality of her usurped experiences, made the moment melancholic.
They would always be siblings, of course, but this was a world far more meritocratic than her old one. Already, even at the tender age of thirteen, she could sense the wane kindness in his face. He possessed a natural arrogance born out of necessity and circumstance. Percy attended a Selective High School. Their Aunty once said that if he awakened 'properly', she would move him to Prince's with a paid-tuition. When Gwen tried to impart her worldly wisdom for the last time; Percy had the glazed look of someone who thought very little of her advice.
No heartfelt hugs, no thunderous dramatics. Just a wry smile.
"That all Miss?" The Removalist topped up his three-wheeled trolley and asked for final confirmation.
Gwen looked back at the Forestville apartment and saw her father still fuming in the kitchen, her brother's door slightly ajar.
"Yeah." She shut the front door. "That's it."
The last of the boxes were pressed and packed for recycling as Gwen sat on the single bed of her new home for the next two years. Yue wouldn't be here for another day. Elvia said she would be moving in on the first day of the new term, the following Monday.
For the moment then, Gwen had the place to herself. She resented these moments, for idle minds grew anxious.
I was one traveller, long I stood...
looked down one as far as I could...
Brambles permeated her path, and she had no idea where the road bent in the undergrowth. A week into her new life, the wisdom of her old world was all the evidence she had of her former self. If she were to re-live her teenagehood, how was her old world knowledge going to help her Spellcraft? Magic ignored every rule of natural philosophy she knew; she couldn't just pull a wonderful Wizard of Oz, could she?
Would scientific charlatanism be enough to walk the path of Spellcraft?
On that note, Gwen sighed. The more she learned about the road ahead, the less confident she grew.
She had a year and a half of senior education which she had to complete. Within that time, the Mages who were talented and those who were mediocre were divided again into separate vocations. Those with talent sought higher education, entering Mandatory Military Service as junior officers. Those without the talent joined foundational training in industries beginning their military service as grunts.
Mandatory Military Service.
She had baulked when Yue began to boast about how much she looked forward to her rite of passage.
Actual combat? Against Monsters? Gwen struggled to visualise the event.
She's going to be Spellfodder, Gwen moped.
Think positive, think positive! She reversed gears, chanting to herself like a mantra. There was nothing to be done now, nothing but the coming on of human sleep.
Yue arrived in a day later, accompanied by her father who acted as her manual labourer. Mr Bai had known Gwen since they were young and so had asked her to look after his hot-headed daughter. Together they unpacked and waited for their third member.
"Where's your Mum?" Gwen asked.
"She doesn't like to be in a place full of Mages; you know that, right?" Yue pushed a box under her bed. "My mom's pretty sensitive about her NoM status. My talent has got her in a good mood though. She's been bragging to her family for the last week. I think the whole neighbourhood knows."
"Hahaha," Gwen chuckled. Even in this world, Yue's boisterous mother was the same.
A Message spell bloomed beside Gwen's ear.
"Looks like Elvia's here early," Gwen remarked. "She's down below."
A gargantuan Mercedes S-Class pulled up at the front of the apartment. A manservant opened the door for Elvia as another, the driver, took out her luggage. The vehicle would not have caused such a stir if they were in Pineford’s Ladies College up the Shore, but here was Blackwattle! It was a government-sanctioned Spellcraft school with blue-collar kids. Even the staff were a humbled bunch, been retired Mages from different government industries, as well as the Military.
To the dismay of the academy cohort, Elvia exchanged cheeks with Gwen and Yue, then together, the trio made for the ‘penthouse’ suite.
Chinese whispers ran rampant within the hour. Tales told of Gwen worming her deceptive way into the friendship of her better peers. Others declared that Gwen was a rebellious gal who ran a gang and imperilled the two into accepting her. Another contested that Gwen was, in fact, the bastard daughter of a politician who used his influence to set her up with illicit means of success.
The truth behind the schoolyard jealousy was of course, merely one of pragmatism.
During the summer semester, the school held a government-sanctioned live-combat examination, known euphemistically as the Field Trip. For this field assignment, Mages were set up in 'Parties' of five. Naturally, everyone wanted to be on the team with a Healer and the top damage dealing acolyte of the academy. All the A-team needed to add was an Abjurer, and they were good to go.
How had Gwen Song ingratiated herself into the A-Team effortlessly? Who does she think she is?
The academic term plodded along, bulldozing forward without a care for the student's natural abilities. Blackwattle was, after all, a Public School with no time to spare for those who faltered. As for Gwen, her classes underscored current magical theory, progressing through a dozen topics interchangeably given by staff and guest speakers.
Gwen marked off November with an impending sense of dread.
Every waking hour had been spent studying by herself, or with Elvia and Yue, who supplemented her work.
Theory of Mana
Senior Spellcraft 101
Enchantments and Constructs
Study of Magical Creatures
Amongst the all-important subjects were also the necessities of life in the modern world. Arts, Natural Philosophy, and Home Economics - a topic insultingly catered only for the girls.
Furthermore, Spellcraft students received two vital but limited resources:
Low-Density Mana Crystals identified as LDMs and an allocated time in the Cognisance Chamber.
LDMs were used to replenish mana quickly, allowing students more practice with aligning their astral presence, drawing upon the elemental planes to manifest phenomena. Invocation practice was an all-important daily ritual for most students, as the constant process of draining, using, and channelling mana made one's capacity for Spells higher in both volume and flux. The instructors described the process as akin to physical training, wherein only by pushing oneself to exhaustion with constant strain and repetition can one's proficiency for affinity and Sigil increase.
Conversely, the Cognisance Chamber was a quasi-magical chamber constructed to allow Mages to see within themselves and visualise their links to the elemental planes to which they were interconnected. As it was impossible for the average Acylote to comprehend Astral Theory, the chamber cognitively generated Illusion, allowing the Acylote to 'interact' with their Astral Bodies. The education wasn't holistic, but the Frontier's purpose, after all, was to put bodies behind mana engines, barriers and factories, not produce scholars.
Pushing herself to study, Gwen voraciously acquired an entire lexicon during her remedial, chief of which was an understanding of 'Affinity'.
Talent Affinity signified the ease of manifesting phenomena from a particular School of Magic, as well as reducing spell fatigue.
Elemental Affinity increased power and reduced cost.
When queried, Yue anecdotally drew upon the ubiquitous Fireball, her most desired Evocation.
"The higher my affinity, the hotter my flame, the more penetrative my strike, and the larger my area of effect. Concurrently, I got lower casting cost and therefore lesser risk of mana burn."
Additionally, Mages could attune themselves with Elemental Spirits, further compounding the manifested phenomena. A low-tier Element Sprite could add a single tier of effectiveness to a Mage's spells. At higher tiers, sapient Sprites manipulated spells in unique and unimaginable ways.
Element-shift was likewise a post-industrial Spellcraft staple. A neutral Shielding Abjurer generated an invisible magic barrier. An Earthen Mage, however, manifested a Stone Shield. A Fire Mage created a Fire Shield which burned melee assailants. A Water Mage produced a circulating cascade, a self-replenishing Shield capable of nullifying lesser elemental effects.
The mechanical limitations of Spellcraft, therefore, was why Gwen's reputation as a null-Element preceded her.
When her turn in the Cognisance Chamber came around, her peers jeered and joked as she made the inevitable walk of shame. It had only been two months into the academic term, and she was already infamous.
Her intimacy with Yue and Elvia served only to add fuel to the fire. She was very much the tall poppy. As a semi-giantess at six feet, she was instantly recognisable a block away. Her only saving grace, Gwen noted bitterly, was the absence of a scarlet 'A' on her uniform.
But her social suicide wasn't her only problem. Her most vexing irritation was that in two months, she had yet to cast a single spell successfully without feeling utterly sick with mana burn. Her incompetence made no sense, as many of the elementary spells were without an element.
Meanwhile, Yue had already managed a flame channel. She showed off by playing around with a dab of flame that danced harmlessly around her hands. Elvia, apparently born ready, effortlessly managed Healing cantrips.
Plagued by self-doubt and misery, Gwen made her way through to the Cognisance Chamber, jeered by cold glances and mocking faces.
She was the last to visit the Chamber.
The arrangement was that students with more 'potential' were allowed to used the chamber first. Tellingly, it took two fortnights of micro-management to affirm her appointment.
"Don't worry Gwen," Her friend had comforted her. "Once you're in there, you'll know what's wrong."
"I am hopelessly optimistic," Gwen replied with a wane smile.
"You can do it!" Yue declared. "Try harder!"
“You’re reading way too many propaganda pieces," Gwen observed wrily. If wanting something badly enough made it happen, Humanity wouldn't be half as desperate.
"I have confidence in you!" Elvia added, straddling a pillow between her legs and her chest. "My dad says I have excellent magical senses, and you don't feel like a squib to me."
A 'squib' was a NoM born into a Mage bloodline. They were rare, but fate liked to play silly buggers.
At the door, a staff member scanned her ID card.
"You have an hour. Your student card should record any changes in your abilities," the middle-aged clerk, a NoM, informed her expressionlessly.
"Thank you, Ma'am," Gwen replied politely nonetheless.
Inside the chamber was a platform for her to stand. The whole set up reminded her of a 60's space module, but bigger. Gwen positioned herself, then waited for the Enchantment to activate.
Slowly, the room dimmed, its dimensions transforming into a grey, edgeless space. A reflection expanded below Gwen's body, refracted by Illusory glyphs to appear above, beside, and around her. According to the student guide, each Sigil the Acolyte gained appeared as glowing nebulas.
Gwen by now had two months of study under her belt. She was no longer blindly guessing at arcane phenomena.
Floating through the darkness, she made sense of the pseudo-space before beginning her navigation. Not far, she spotted an illuminated space. Gwen willed her Astral Body toward what was hopefully her Evocation Sigil.
Yue had tried and failed to describe to Gwen the indefinable phenomenon, but the sight now had Gwen's heart pounding. When she came closer to the nebula of starlight, she could see it pulsing with a familiar twinkle, blinking and winking as though signalling her.
"Hello?" Gwen thought out loud, her pulse quickening.
This better not be the precursor to something worse, she thought. That would be a bloody lark. She was a Generalist, possessing no talent and no affinity. Theoretically, seeing a Sigil with such distinct illumination was impossible.
Abandoning all care, she thrust herself violently into the stardust.
Her Astral Body grew incandescent.
Inexplicably, she understood Evocation.
It was as though she had always known how to use Evocation, as profoundly as one dextrously employed a limb, balanced on a wall, or caught a ball. The knowledge was instinctual and habitual, it was thinking in abstraction.
The mana conducted splendidly through her body. There was no puzzle, no mystery. Where she had blindly groped for guidance on the open planes of potential, there were now distinct paths she could take, solutions that were self-evident.
Breathless with excitement, she yelped.
As her Magic Missile faded into the distance, a fissure of light swept through her Sigil. Her newly visualised Evocation Sigil tapped into its elementally aligned gate.
A flash of lightning danced through the illusory star-field, filling the uncertain space with cobalt-blue and Tyrian-purple.
"Oh my God!"
Gwen wailed with affirmation, overcome with relief and joy.
The folks on the train were right!
She was a Quasi-Elementalist!
A Lightning Mage!
She was a sorceress who tapped into the Quasi-elemental Plane between the Plane of Air and Positive Energy.
Why hadn't she awaken earlier? Why was she denied?
Was it her ignorance? She had stared at the Sigil dumbfounded, not knowing that she had to reach out.
But enough of that. Gwen wanted to laugh, to scream, to cry out in triumphant. Within the Chamber, Gwen punched the air in triumph. Had she finally managed to supersede her predecessor's curse of mediocrity?
As the electricity encircling her body simmered, Gwen knew that the portal to the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Lightning had stabilised. She willed mana into the Sigil, drawing upon a mental image of Yue playing with her Dancing Light, and felt a numbing sensation travelling across her forearm as a sliver of blue light twirled around her finger into a small phantom creature.
Her creation hummed and purred at her, making Gwen question if the thing was sentient or merely a manifestation of her animus.
Suddenly, abruptly, her abstract elemental zapped out angrily at something hidden just out of sight.
Gwen focused her mind's eye, concentrating on the space beyond the glowing stardust. Something was there, hidden in an obscured section darker than black. She moved past the glimmering, static-charged mass of the Evocation sigil, then reached out for the slivers of something that seemed to fade in and out of her vision.
A sudden shudder engendered within her Astral Body. She felt a sharp, biting pain. Flinching, Gwen withdrew her phantom hand. She saw that there were tenebrous incisions all over her illusory skin. At the edge of her vision, slivers of black continued to twist and turn, appearing both closer and further away, taunting her.
Gwen thought back to the dream she had before. There was light, and there was dark. If the light was Lightning, then what was the dark?
Yin and Yang, light and dark, milk and coffee?
She willed her electrical creature to investigate. The sliver of lightning coiled upon itself, then with a mighty leap, launched itself towards the shadows.
Gwen attempted a second Evocation spell, achieving resounding success.
A white radiance dispelled all shadow. Gwen could see the slivers now, like small dark fish, swimming and fleeing as the ball lightning grew in intensity and rolled towards them. They cowered in the presence of her electricity, nestling and writhing like slippery eels.
The aura given off by the creatures was both alien and foreign, uncomfortable to the extreme, inducing inexplicable vertigo. But if this mysterious thing existed in the Cognisance projection, Gwen thought to herself. Then it must also exist within herself.
Besides her, the lightning spark returned from its show of force, resting on her shoulder as it sizzled. Gwen reached out as she had done so before, snatching one of the creatures with her hand. There was that sensation again, that strange shuddering that felt as if space itself had distorted-
Gwen found herself in the real world.
She was no longer in the sensory illusion created by the Cognisance Chamber. Gwen flexed her fingers, disorientated to the extreme. She still had no idea what she had discovered.
The door to the chamber opened with a distinct displacement of air.
"That's time," The admin asked Gwen for her card. When she noted the changes inscribed by the Chamber’s magically driven recording scripts, her eyes widened.
"Congratulations," the woman spoke with a tone of awe, "I shall inform the Principal."
When Gwen received her I.D card, she took a moment to be equally astounded.
S.I.D :: 0043598
Evoker Tier :: 1
Elemental Affinity :: Quasi Elemental - Lightning (3)
The rest of the card was blank, its space reserved for other achievements.
Holy shit. Gwen's fingers trembled. I made it.
Here was the watershed moment, the moment the life of the old Gwen ceased to be, the moment fate caught the cliff's edge and pulled her up by the fingernails.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I—
I took the Magic Carpet through—
Thank GOD she didn't have to trudge through the Wildland woods. Lord knew what lurked in the dark; knowing this cursed world, it was probably Shub-Niggurath.
In her moment of private reverie, Gwen hadn't noticed some sticky-beaked students sneaking up behind her to read her card, to announce it to the world and viciously mock the object of their ire.
"Gwen Song," someone read out aloud before Gwen could stow her card, but it was too late. "Tier 1 Evoker..."
Then the reader's voice croaked.
"What does it say?"
"It says nothing after that, duh..."
The student respectfully took a step back and gave Gwen a look of no hard feelings. He possessed the greatest respect for his schoolmate.
"Tier 3... Quasi Lightning!" he announced, biting every syllable.
A few of the students anticipating sweet nothings from the public announcement was already laughing. A split-second later, their mockery changed to grave concern.
A dangerous silence reigned.
Gwen slipped the card into her skirt-pocket, then fled the scene.