Gwen awoke, presided over by a resplendent angel in a trainee's scrubs. The Celestial looked just like Elvia; only she was attaching an I.V drip onto Gwen's wrist.
A familiar tingle of Positive energy infused Gwen's chest, stitching her bruised flesh. Slowly, her throbbing injury dissolved until all discomfort ceased. Gradually, Gwen's refocused eyes became drawn to a silver-winged badge on Elvia's collar, consisting of two crossed staves with twin serpents.
"Congrats on getting your licence..." Gwen languished voice addressed her companion.
"Thanks," Elvia replied, her cheeks as fresh as pippins, but then the girl's tone took on a sterner note. "Why did you and Yue both get injured! That's so irresponsible! I wasn't even there!"
Gwen felt a pang of guilt. In hindsight, the impression she had made was matched only by her recklessness.
"I couldn't have summoned the Shield otherwise..." She tried to explain logically. "It took everything I had, next time..."
"Hmmph!" Elvia snorted. "There won't be a 'next' time, at least not without me nearby!"
"Sure thing, Evee," Gwen touched her friend's slim white fingers in an attempt to appease her upset. "How was your test?"
"Fine, though I wasn't in danger, not like you guys," Elvia recollected. “It was difficult having to triage twenty patients by myself, but everyone did fine. Uncle had to make minor adjustments, but I passed with flying colours."
"I am glad to hear it." Gwen breathed out.
The door of the infirmary opened without so much as a knock.
Yue entered the room like a storm.
"Yeah, just about."
"Gwen!" Yue leaned into the bed and gave her friend a suffocating hug. "I got some great news! Because of the school's crop of 'advanced' students, we're going to have a personal instructor! The Sydney Tower is sending one of their own!"
A private Instructor? Gwen mused. That IS good news. Ordinarily only the elite private schools had individual Instructors.
"Other than that, how are you feeling?"
"I am just a bit tired," Gwen confessed.
"The drip is a saline solution, it should get your hydration up," Elvia informed them. "I am afraid I haven't learned Lesser Restoration yet."
"Take another nap,” Yue advised. "You totally out of mana."
"I think I will."
“One more thing.” Yue stopped by the door, trailed by Elvia. “You’re up for another session at the Cog Chamber. The Principal says to get it done as soon as you can. Before the Instructor arrives.”
A second session would be immensely helpful, Gwen though, applauding Principal Bartlett's assistance. She needed to figure out what those strange black phenomena had been.
With her friends gone, Gwen sunk into the soft linen covers of the infirmary bed and thought about the near future to come. She had finally attained her short-term goals, and now her immediate concern was the real-life trial by fire and combat.
Blackwattle's top Acolytes would delve in groups deep into the Green Zone to perform mock-Quests. These were different each year, sometimes retrieving an object an examiner had planted, sometimes returning with the evidence of completing a subjugation.
Her first hunt.
Her first kill.
Mayhap her first injury.
Aye, now there's the rub. Gwen bit her lip until she tasted a hint of iron. She'd never so much as gutted a fish before, and now she was supposed to kill? Not only that, but a living 'being' in the shape of a person?
Could she handle it? She wondered to herself.
What would happen if a creature wounded her?
She imagined herself freaking out, hysterical, unable to concentrate. She who hadn't even so much as broken an arm in all her years - now had to contend with the possibility of a Magical Beast ripping out a chunk of her flesh.
Could she stay cool if Yue or Elvia got seriously injured? Would she freeze, freak out, or flee?
Elvia stayed behind after her shift and waited for Gwen to wake before going home together. The dorm had set up a small celebratory dinner for the victors; when the duo entered the communal dining, cheers and applause welcomed them to the tune of pyrotechnical cantrips.
Dinner was already in full swing amidst a sumptuous feast of Wildland creatures. Rawson had spared no expense, tapping deep into the scullery's budget to make a meal worthy of Blackwattle's prodigies.
Once again Elvia bore witness to the appetite of teenagers, with her fellow students packing away enough food to feed a battalion of soldiers.
“Gwen! Elvia.” A familiar voice called out.
The girls turned to see Jun, comfortable in jeans and an indy band shirt, a drink in each hand. Her future teammate had been the first to Message and congratulate them.
“For us?” she took one off his hands.
“Of course.” Jun had a habit of grinning with only the left side of his mouth, smiling lopsidedly.
“Here we are, ladies…”
A second voice greeted them. It belonged to a young man with a mop of fair hair. Their guest was clean cut in a white t-shirt and jeans, identified by a tattoo on his right hand in the form of an eye.
“Henley Lucas Prince, at your service.” The young man bowed, careful not to spill the drinks he held. Gwen took the stemmed glasses and thanked their new companion. She passed one over to Elvia.
“Henley is a Diviner,” Jun spoke on his companion's behalf. “Tier 2 Air, not that it matters. He's pretty handy with Magic Missiles though.”
Divination was the one school that required no particular affinity with elements. Its staple spells, however, were incredibly useful. True Strike, Detect Hostility, Detect Magic, Detect Poison and Find Traps- no other School of Magic possessed so much utility.
The girls' eyes lit up.
“Hey, my eyes are up here,” Henley quipped.
“I can vouch for his expertise,” Jun butted in. "Though not for his personality."
“I can find any lost key within a radius of three hundred meters,” Henley humbly bragged. "And mark any target so that your spells could unerringly strike it.”
Gwen immediately thought of her trouble with the Guiding Bolt - the one imbued with a positive charge. Could Henley be the solution to her problems? If so, she would have to ensure that the boy was suitably loyal to their cause.
Swinging the flute-glass in an arc, she turned her hazel eyes onto Henley's surprised face. Shifting her upper body, shoulders squared for maximum elegance, Gwen unleashed a devastating smile.
Henley gulped, failed by his Divination.
“I think she likes him,” Jun said cautiously, looking to Yue for confirmation.
Yue measured Henley over from head to toe.
“Hey, look but no touch,” Henley's scalp crawled.
"How good's your Divination?" Yue asked.
“Impeccable.” Henley’s voice took on a more flamboyant tone, “Shall I invoke the rite of Seeing and gaze into the uncertain future for you? To scry the invisible and make known the unseeable?”
“Ergh, mate...” Jun's face turned bright pink. For whatever reason, all Diviners develop a tic for the theatrical.
“Alright, what's Elvia thinking?” Yue pulled the surprised girl before her, presenting her before Henley like a ritual sacrifice.
“Detect Thoughts!” Henley announced, a halo of sorts materialised over his head.
“Oh no…” Elvia cowered. Where could this possibly be going?
“Ask me anything about yourself…” Henley began.
“Are you wearing a bra today, Evee?” her companions blurted in tandem.
Elvia turned to stone as per the tier 6 Petrify.
Henley’s face went from white to red, then to a deep scarlet.
“Yep, he's the real deal,” Yue noted.
“Very effective, good mana conversion ratio,” Gwen added professionally, sipping her coke.
Elvia turned to her roommates with flashing eyes.
“You guys! Hmmph!” she huffed and puffed as her friends fell about in hysterical laughter. To everyone’s surprise, she slapped Yue across the chest, then slapped Gwen across the buttocks, drawing curious eyes from around the room.
Jun turned to Henley, now polymorphed into a beetroot.
“Yeah… yeah…” He glanced at his friend cautiously, “How old did you say the healer was?”
“Same age as the others, fifteen I am sure.”
“Alright.” Henley looked sceptical.
“… She’s not wearing a bra.”
“Poor Elvia,” Jun lamented after a moment. “Maybe she should eat what her friends are eating.”
“I feel like I committed a crime,” Henley moped miserably. "She looked twelve or something."
“Chin-up, we’re only sixteen you know. You’re not awakening to something strange, are you? All healers look youthful; it's the Positive Energy.”
“I sure hope not…” Henley shook his head, his mind still thinking of the wondrous Bolivian salt-flats.
“Anyway, that's the five of us then,” Jun continued.“ I’ll head to the Head Office and get the admin done.”
“They need to sign too,” Henley added.
“No problems, I’ll drop by again."
They clinked and finished their drinks.
“For the Field Trip!"
"Aeee!" Elvia dodged an enraged Yue while beside them, Gwen cackled.
Henley and Jun blinked, overcame by unbidden anxiety.
The girls would pass Survival and Orienteering class, surely?
Gwen made her second trip down the familiar hallway to the Cognisance Chamber. It was a rare boon to have another visit beyond one's annual review, for each exhibition of the chamber’s powers drained a significant volume of crystals. During one of their early morning chats at the school gate, Gwen had lamented the early termination of her last visit, and the wisened Principal must have taken note.
She signed in at the counter.
The chamber was the same as before. Gwen took her place in the middle, then awaited the ignition of the illusory enchantment. The room dimmed, space and time folded, then she was once again within the arena of her mind.
Her Evocation sigil glowed happily, pulsating amongst the indefinite space of the Astral Plane, an occasional arc of Lightning broadcasting a spiderweb fissure of Lichtenberg figures.
Right, here goes, she muttered internally.
Gwen summoned the lightning serpent that she had conjured prior. Rather than an electric elver, it was now akin to a ball python; she could see within its translucent body little motes of elemental lightning sparking back and forth.
She reached out with her mind for the space beyond the Evocation nebular, expanding her consciousness, searching for those little black motes that gave off a sickening feeling of vertigo. The light of her Lightning added a dimension to the darkness that had not existed before, though Gwen was confident that this too, was merely an illusion of her mind's making.
She soon rediscovered her quarry.
Unlike her first endeavour, there no longer seemed to be a host of the little grub-like creatures lingering so close to the Evocation sigil, more than likely frighted off by the overflow of energy.
She felt it! That sudden drop in the pit of her stomach like she had stepped into the air. She moved closer, figuratively speaking, finding a whole cluster of the creatures thick enough to form a black void. The cumulative effect of seeing the larval swarm made her immediately nauseous, as though she had motion sickness.
Gwen drew back. It was too much; she could feel her Astral Body shuddering.
Yet, she felt simultaneously drawn towards the vortex of inverted space, where the leech-like creatures seemed to suck in all light, their oily hides darker than black.
What IS this thing? Gwen felt herself haplessly moving forward. Vaguely aware of the fate that awaited the curious cat.
She reminded herself that none of this was real; that all of this was inside her head.
Here was the Cognisance Chamber, after all, and all of its projections were merely manifestations of her Astral morphic field. She had never heard of anyone dying in the chamber; as for what her strange visions portend, there was only one way to find out.
Gwen suppressed an instinctual desire to flee; instead, she pushed herself towards the mass of writhing larva, at which point the vertigo ringing in her head became a screeching static, freezing every nerve in her body.
With a fatalistic air, Gwen thrust her arm down to the elbow into the swarm.
She may as well have assailed a bucket of dry ice.
Shit, did I fuck up? A sudden paranoia engendered within the recess of her mind. The agony was at such a pitch that she felt on the verge of cracking a molar.
Oh, God! She gulped for air, is this what giving birth feels like? Two walnut-sized kidney stones jostling for space?
Below, reflected in the Cognisance illusion, tenebrous, inky liquid from the worms was now seeping into her Astral Body. Within her mind, the torturous pain had grown abstract and exquisite, combining with her anima, seemingly without end.
With a shuddering force of will, Gwen tightened her grip, crushing something with the texture of gelatine.
ENOUGH! Gwen pleaded to the void that she had done enough. She was at her limit.
Gwen released her lightning serpent, a bright sliver of starlight piercing the void. The darkness retreated like a tide, instantly fading into the neutral nothingness of the Astral Plane.
Opening her hand, she saw within her palm motes of darkness, embedded within her flesh, appearing and disappearing at the edge of her vision.
What a horrid, gut-churning, brain boiling trial! But she had powered through. That was the crucial thing. Come bushfire or flood water; she would never doubt her will to get shit done.
The projection waned, indicating the end of her session.
Just in time too. Gwen exhaled. That was a close one.
With great anticipation, she made her way out to collect her Student Card.
What would have changed? What would it say now? She couldn’t wait.
A new element perhaps, maybe another School of Magic?
That would be incredible because only the most talented individuals from the most incestuous Clans produced Mages with two elements.
“Here you are." The instructor returned her card.
Gwen inspected her I.D.
Evoker Tier:: 2
Elemental Affinity :: Quasi Elemental - Lightning (3)
“Congratulations on the level up.”
What an exemplary student, her expression appeared to say, only three months in and Gwen was already tier 2.
Gwen regarded her card once again, noting the absence of any other significant difference.
She baulked. Had she made a mistake? Were the dark worms sweet nothings?
All that pain and suffering for a misunderstanding? Th-that’s bullshit! Gwen felt cheated by the Cog-Chamber. So much for her fair shake of the sauce bottle! Not even a consolation prize?
“You alright, Miss Song?” The Instructor inquired. Now that’s she’s taken a better gander at the infamous student, she noted Gwen looked somewhat gaunt. Her cheeks were sallow and sunken, the bags under her eyes were puffy and pronounced, she looked as though she hadn't slept for days.
“You are overtaxing yourself,” she said worryingly. “It will do you no good if you collapse.”
Gwen likewise took notice of her diminished state of health.
“I don't feel so g-”
She tried to speak, but her throat choked with ash and dust.
Oh no no no, not again, Gwen felt a sinking feeling, the very same she had exhibited in Hyde Park. Her world began to spin, inundated by that strange vertigo. She fell into the alarmed embrace of the Instructor as she slumped forward, her body falling as though someone had cut the strings holding her up.
“How are you here again?!” Elvia’s voice rang out sharply, full of upset and disappointment. She had been chewing Gwen out for the last ten minutes.
“What kind of training are you doing behind our backs?”
“I am sorry Evee...”
“If I may interrupt...” a masculine voice with a strong European accent spoke beside them. It was the physician who had been teaching Elvia, Dr Lindholm, her uncle. “Gwen, I want you to be very honest with me....”
“I shall...” Gwen replied, a little worried about what would happen if someone found out about her ‘true’ condition.
“Are you... putting yourself on a diet?”
“No...” Gwen replied quizzically.
“Alright,” he turned to Elvia for confirmation, who affirmed Gwen wasn't hiding anything untoward.
“Gwen eats enough for both of us...” Elvia divested sourly.
“...” Gwen blushed.
“Right…. So,” The doctor continued. “Are you sexually active?”
“I am sorry, what?” Gwen almost spat on Elvia's uncle. The complexion of her face flamed amazement.
“Ahem... I am serious.” Elvia's uncle appeared unmoved, making the two girls ashamed for their faux pas. “I mean, have you being out with anyone other than people from the dorm, people who are questionable, perhaps engaging in substance abuse, that sort of thing…”
“No, never. I train all the time...”
“Elvia?” The good doctor doesn’t seem to hold the general honesty of teenage girls in high esteem.
“It’s true, Uncle. Gwen trains like it's her religion.”
“Fine…fine… can you elaborate on your training?”
Gwen told him what she could.
“I see...” he replied, “I fear you are not suffering from mana drain, but in fact from a vitality drain. Perhaps ease off on the exhaustive training? I know its said to develop your mana reserves, but it remains a questionable truism from early Spellcraft theory.”
Gwen searched her memory of the last few months lectures.
“Vitality drain... as in life-drain?”
“Yes,” Elvia’s uncle worriedly answered, “I’d say the symptoms point to a negative energy drain, but you’re tapped into the positive energy plane, so that’s hardly a possibility.”
“That’s...” Gwen paused. She recalled the strange dark mass and the black worms. “Impossible, I’ll be more careful with my mana management next time.”
She was infamous for her horrid mana management, after all.
“I need to take some blood samples if you don’t mind,” The doctor stated. “In case there are pathogenic quasi-magical reasons.”
Gwen nodded demurely.
“Is Gwen going to be alright?” Elvia asked. “Won’t she be too weak to give blood?”
“It’s alright, Evee.” Her uncle replied kindly.
Gwen looked away as the syringe penetrated her dermis. The bloodletting was relatively painless, though she had always been terrified of needles and could not bear to watch. Several vials of blood soon lined the shelves, while Gwen appeared even paler than before.
“That’s all I needed,” Elvia's uncle sealed the vials with labels. “Now for your treatment. Sit upright please, arms relaxed, chin up.”
The doctor hovered a hand over her heart.
“Heal moderate wounds!”
A thrum of Positive Energy flooded her Astral Form. Gwen’s physical body absorbed the healing mana greedily.
Instantly she felt haler; in fact, Gwen felt better than ever.
“She's fit and ready to go," the doctor declared.
“Thank you, Sir,” Gwen likewise acknowledged, still feeling a little woozy from the sudden influx of vitality.
“Get some sleep,” he advised. “You'll need to have a long rest after you get home. I’ll write you a script, take tomorrow off.”
“Thanks again, Sir.”
Elvia's uncle left.
“Is nothing the matter Gwennie? Really?” Elvia pursued the source of Gwen's illness relentlessly.
“Absolutely. I am fine, Evee.”
“Alright,” Elvia stated softly. She hugged Gwen bodily, burying her small face in her chest like a kitten. “You’re so bony.”
“Yeah... I am starving... I can eat a whole Auroch right now...”
“What happened?” Yue asked, watching Gwen moving onto her third quarter of quail.
Elvia told her of what her uncle had said.
“Training a little too hard, hey?” Yue looked over at Gwen sceptically, who was trying to swallow and drink at once. “If you’re low on mana, I got some spare crystals.”
“Mmmmm mmph..” came the reply.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” both Elvia and Yue corrected her at once.
Gwen swallowed, her stomach bloating like a balloon. She gave it a playful pat.
Gwen was stuffing herself sick because of what she'd seen in the bathroom mirror. For whatever reason, she had moved unknowingly slipped from comfortably slim toward anorexia. Far beyond an athletic litheness, her hipbones protruded, and her ribs were painfully visible. Horrid sight! Impermissible! Even in her last life, working sixty hours a week, she managed to hit the gym enough times between work and weekends to maintain an enviable appearance.
Beauty was vanity, but it was also social capital!
That was why Gwen had ordered a double portion of protein and carbs, hoping to work herself back into a healthy weight. After dinner, she would go for a jog around the neighbourhood!
Her two friends watched as their slim companion slammed down another mouthful.
Elvia touched her chest.
Was this the secret?