“I think you overdid it a bit Alesia; I sound like a Mermen God-King or something.”
“You said to make an impressive first-impression!”
“Now you're just being manipulative.”
“Well, it’s too late now, she's very impressed by the looks of it, look at her, I think her knees are buckling.”
“Sufina seems to like her. She's even taken on the girl's likeness. Any ideas? The only other person she’s ever taken to was you.”
A quick exchange via Silent Message took place between Alesia and her Master while Gwen stared with doe-eyed worship at Henry Kilroy, star-struck by the title of 'Magister'.
A Magister! She had once met the infamous cabbage, John Howard, at a barbeque in Kirribilli, and she'd only felt remotely bedazzled.
But a Magister was no Prime Minister. Here was a Mage capable of tapping into three Schools of Magic, and whose proficiency of each school had reached a profound mastery.
Barring a Meisterhood, something akin to a Nobel Prize, the title of Magister was the highest honour possible for a mortal Mage. A Magistership was the end game; an apex exemplar of Spellcraft. If Gwen was the base-stone at the foot of a pyramid; Magister Kilroy was the gold marking its granite cap.
“Its a pleasure to meet you, Magister,” Gwen intoned with the reverence of an altar boy ministered by the Pope. "I am... honoured..."
She wanted to say something profound, but her gift of gab had been stunned into silence. For a second, Gwen wondered if the man gave out autographs.
"Hahaha, the girl's too startled to speak!"
A sound of trilling laughter broke Gwen's moment of religious epiphany. Sufina once again appeared beside Gwen, now taking a liking to Gwen’s hair. With stiletto like fingers, the Sprite deftly braided Gwen's waist-length locks, cooing in pleasure as she twirled Gwen's dark curls.
“Likewise, Miss Song,” the Magister replied, his tone even-tempered and unperturbed. The elderly Mage motioned cooly with a hand. Gwen marvelled as one of the chairs moved to meet him.
Upon closer inspection, Gwen realised the chair was being grown from the floor space! It was a living thing!
Then was suddenly sent off balance when the chair continued to move, sending him stumbling backwards.
Alesia rushed to Kilroy's aid, afraid that her venerable teacher would topple over and break a hip. Thankfully, a low stool sprouted from the ground and caught Henry before he lost his balance.
“Sufina, focus.” Henry's voice grew wary with annoyance. "We are before guests."
The stool morphed into an elaborate throne.
Wow, Gwen averted her eyes. To think chairs could be used to convey sarcasm.
“…” Henry sighed.
“That is why you never spoil your Familiars,” Alesia transcribed the awkward demonstration for Gwen, dispelling the serious air previously built by Henry's entry. “You try to impress, but your Familiar trips you because she didn’t like your tone.”
“Lord Kilroy?” Gwen attempted to reinvigorate the moment of solemnity to no avail. The magic was long gone.
“Just 'Sir' will do, or Magister,” Kilroy replied in a way that reminded Gwen of Alesia, making the exact motion of waving his hands offhandedly to indicate the desire for ease. “So, let's get down to business, I may not look like it, but I am a busy man.”
“Busy napping,” Alesia undermined her doting Master with a mischievous smile. "Gwen, don't be scared. He's a harmless old codger, albeit a useful one."
Sufina giggled, the Dryad's laughter sending tremors through the Grot.
Henry’s face was a map of helpless annoyance. On his wizened face, Gwen saw a doting father long given up on trying to educate his wayward daughters.
“See, this is why Gunther will always be my favourite,” the old man lamented. "He listens!"
“Hmmph!” Alesia pouted.
So even the mighty Alesia De Botton could be adorable, Gwen suppressed a secret smile. The interaction between her and her master was both paternal and admirable.
The Magister refocused his attention on Gwen.
“Gwen.” Henry's tone returned to one of solemnity. “Alesia has told me about your condition. I suppose we are here to decide what's to be done.”
“Sir?” Gwen swallowed.
“Why don’t you start from the beginning?”
Sans her otherworldly origins, Gwen told the Magister all that she knew: her strange nightmare, her awakening, her vertigo and fatigue. She spoke about her experiences in the Cognisance Chamber, the training she had undergone. She then recounted her encounter with Edgar, what he had tried to do to her, and the discovery of the dark element that seemed to drain her life-force.
“…and the serpent?” The Magister enquired once Gwen had finished. Gwen looked toward Alesia, who nodded encouragingly.
Gwen recounted what she could. When she stated that she awoke from a state of near-death, restored and revitalised, the Magister’s brows raised an impressive inch. The subsequent amiability of the Mythic and the fact that she had spoken to a primordial Land God without her untempered mind imploding further fascinated the Magister.
“I am afraid there aren't many answers I can give you.” Henry intoned after Gwen's tale was done. She noted the Magister had nursed a cup of Golden Mead the whole while, taking sips every so often. “But, first things first, may I see this Kirin amulet your father gave you?”
Gwen began to untie the string around her neck, but the Magister stopped her.
“No need to remove it. I merely wish to inspect its aura.”
Gwen allowed the Core to rest against her bosom.
Her skin crawled as Kilroy's diagnostic magic washed over her.
The Magister pursed his lips.
“As I thought, no wonder Sufina has taken such a liking to you.”
“Master?” Alesia inquired carefully.
Henry closed his eyes, allowing the collated magic to fade. When he opened his eyes again, they were back to their steely brilliance.
“The amulet is a part of something larger, for I can sense that its animus is incomplete. The materials itself is the heart-stone of something at least at an Ancient tier, below Mythic, but still very, very old. There is a capacity for the storage of spiritual Essence within the item, an entirely different form of magic altogether. For that reason, I can't tell you how the amulet works. It wasn't made with Western Spellcraft and its origins predate the Spellcraft Era. But. since it's a boon from your father, I would keep it close to your chest. Even though heirloom Magic Items may not mesh with modern Spellcraft, they may yet provide passive protection."
The Magister then instructed Gwen to hide her pendant.
"Of far more interest to us is the fact that I can detect the Mythic's vital energy within it, a portion of which…”
Henry pointed towards Gwen’s heart.
"… now resides in you.”
Alesia rejoiced. She knew it was the right idea to come and see her Master. The old man might be getting a little senile, but he was the most authoritative figure on magical phenomena in the Arcanum.
“Wha does that mean?” Gwen asked. As a novice in Spellcraft theory, half of what she had heard was non-sensical jargon.
“When the Serpent said that you were its kin,” the Magister continued. “It meant that the life-force that resides within your body is its 'kin'. I suspect the 'essence' of the egg has seeped into your amulet. As for the egg itself, I can safely assume its an Indigenous Spirit Stone - said to be the discarded Core of Mythic beings that inhabit our vast brown land."
“But the serpent was alive and well,” Gwen countered. "Cores come from dead Magical Creatures, don't they?"
Henry took a sip from his cup, refilled by a helpful Sufina.
“Mythic beings are essentially immortal, especially with serpents, pheonixes and certain species of dragons - they perish and are reborn many times, each time leaving behind something of its past. The egg you saw was something akin to shed-skin.”
Gwen nodded in half-comprehension.
“This brings us to our next problem.” The Magister gestured, putting the previous topic aside.
“The dilemma of your association with a Mythic Class Being.”
Gwen shivered under Kilroy's studied gaze.
“I’ll explain.” Alesia leaned over and held Gwen’s hand, offering the girl her warmth and sympathy. “What I am about to tell you isn't going to be pleasant, but I hope you understand the position you and I are now in.”
Gwen lowered her eyes, anticipating the worst.
“First of all Gwen, you can commune with the Mythic, which means you are capable of influencing its actions, however trivial. That means, unfortunately for you, that you are a state asset. The ability to move a Land God is not something any government would allow to walk the streets freely.”
“Next, what would happen if the Frontier Government or the Commonwealth Tower found out? Not everyone in the Tower is forgiving and slothful like Master here. Most of them are old codgers who would like nothing more than to wage another Great Purge on the coast to expand their influence. Be it the Grey Faction or the Militant Faction, either would love to lay their hands on you. If they do, there are two potential outcomes-”
“One: quarantine. Keep you segregated from the rest of the world, then try to figure out a way to extract the energy from your body. After all, as Master said, it’s not Gwen Song who the creature finds kinship with, it's the Essence it was speaking to, mistaking you for a sibling or the like.”
Gwen’s complexion paled.
“Two: and this is the preferred option - we keep you in complete stasis and isolation. Simply put you away until such time that you are useful or no longer dangerous. The same option also includes killing you, although I doubt it. The Tower is obsessed with potential war assets.”
Cold sweat permeated Gwen's torso, drenching her thin white blouse. How could this be? Had she jumped from the frying pan into the fire? Was she was going to become a specimen in a bottle?
“That’s the circumstances we are looking at,” Alesia finished.
“... Alesia, can you help me?”
She was grasping at straws, but Gwen made the request regardless. Instinctively, she knew her freedom was entirely dependent upon the charity of the two in front of her. This time, without the need for coaxing, her brimming eyes begged for sympathy.
"Henry, help her." It was Sufina who advised her Master.
"Master, you have to help her," Alesia intoned as well, imploring her teacher.
Three pairs of eyes, hazel, ultramarine, and glowing amber, shifted swimmingly toward the Lord Magister of Sydney Tower.
Henry Kaine Foster Kilroy, Lord Magister of the Oceanian Tower, knew he was now at a crossroad.
The pragmatic outcome was obvious, but Henry had seen enough dilemmas play out poorly to trust the inhuman arithmetic of logic. After all, had he not taken on Alesia against all advice, twenty years ago? That impulsive decision had saved tens of thousands of lives, gifting humanity with a flaming-spear to keep the Mermen at bay, simultaneously sparing his conscience.
This girl, Gwen Song, was alike Alesia in many ways. Henry could guess why his favourite student had taken to the anomaly, enough at least, to risk her livelihood. With renewed interest, he studied the girl, watching her pupils dilated and contract, noting the uncommon intelligence in Gwen's eyes.
Was he fit to take on another burden?
He had made three such decisions prior: irrevocably changing three lives.
His wife, Elizabeth.
His first apprentice, Gunther.
And his second, Alesia.
Was there now going to be a fourth? Had he enough time left in him to take on another?
A subtle smiled touched Henry Kilroy's lips.
The Magister was surprised to find himself so amicable, wondering if the years had dulled his paranoia and instead rewarded him with erudition. The passage of time makes it easier to be wise, Henry noted with self-serving sagacity, not to mention something about the girl stirred his curiosity. Alesia had asserted the girl possessed two elements, though she couldn't confirm her hypothesis.
“Then we are agreed, the buck stops here,” Henry pronounced after a minute of harrowing rumination, quoting the legendary American Magister, Harry S. Truman. “Gwen's secret remains between you and I. BUT - nothing comes free; an assurance must be exacted.”
Alesia exhaled deeply; she patted Gwen’s white-knuckled fingers to informed her that the worst was over, furthermore inferring that Gwen had better accept her master’s proposal, else it was back to perpetual Stasis.
“Don't accept so carelessly,” the Magister intoned, thinking of fortifying the girl's resolve. "I warrant we're not giving you much choice here, but still, your commitment must be one of free will. Tell me, child, what Path do you walk? What is it that you want for yourself?"
What did she want?
Gwen wished she knew the answer to the Magister's gentle enquiry. Rationally, she knew that she wanted safety, leisure and ease of life; but was that possible in this world? Wasn't their current crisis precise because her communion with a Mythic-being implied she could single-handedly destroy the safety, comfort, and ease of every other human being in Sydney? In a world where men and women flew through the sky and conjured balls of fire and plasma against monsters, was it even realistic to assume that the warm embrace of mediocrity was a possible option? She had seen the NoMs living in the city, aimless and unemployed, or otherwise existing in humdrum - is that what she aspired to? To live a life of scarcity and irrelevance?
What did she want?
Gwen searched for Alesia and saw a potential answer in her talented Instructor. Beside the Scarlet Sorceress, the figure of the smiling old man and his demi-goddess servant provided another.
“You can be honest with me, child.” The Magister’s voice was a deep, reverberating baritone. “Whatever you may wish, there is no shame. I will accommodate you to the best of the Tower's capacities.”
Gwen's chest expanded with bated breath, her lungs on the verge of bursting. In her old world, such delusions of grandeur applied only to madmen; men whose dreams and manifestos resulted in the death and misery of millions.
“I…” Gwen found her voice, but the words choked and died on her tongue. She knew the words to be wrong. “I … I want…”
Her mouth felt full of ash, her head a raging torrent of strange emotions. Was it so hard to just come out and say something so realistic for a world at war? What would be the harm? Wasn't this a world of Gods and Monsters?
“What do you want? Gwen Song?” The Magister pressed on, teasing open Pandora's sacred receptacle.
“I want… POWER.”
The dirty word came to Gwen at last, the tension flowing from her like an open dam.
“I want the power to protect myself."
"I want the power to protect my friends."
"I want the power to live my life without fear.”
“That’s all?” Magister Kilroy's smile was serene as he twiddled his fingers, forming arcane circles.
Gwen was behind herself now, the words of her old world pouring forth from her lips like a torrent.
“I want the power to punish those who would wrong me. I want to harry the foxes, frighten the wolves, and slaughter the tigers that bar my way! I want the power to terrify those who injure me so that I need fear no vengeance!”
The cynical words of Machiavelli, so laughably hyperbolic and disturbing in her old world, slipped from her tongue like a key into a well-oiled lock, unlocking parts of her she hadn’t known existed. Or perhaps they had always existed; she couldn't help wonder if this was how autocrats and psychopaths were born.
“Excellent!” The Magister roared with satisfying laughter, his mirth rolling across the room and filling its spaces.
“There is no shame in wanting power,” Henry commended his newest ward. “In the study of Spellcraft, Gwen, we call the manifesto we chose the Path. For those of us in the Center Faction of the Middle Path, power is a means, not an end. It is a beast that must be tamed to achieve Greatness!"
“Greatness?” Gwen demanded breathlessly, her earlier confessional had taken a toll on her stamina.
“Yes Gwen, Greatness.”
“The Path of Greatness?”
The old man’s eyes twinkled.
“Alesia, the Credo please.”
Alesia stood from her chair and began to speak like a school girl commanded by a headmaster, her own eyes ablaze with fervent dogma.
“Greatness is the Path of Spellcraft."
“Greatness is not found in oneself.”
"Greatness is how one affects those around him.”
“Greatness is that which does not lie in strength alone, but the noble employment of power; for one is greatest whose strength carries the weight of other’s hearts."
Alesia's intonation quivered with enthusiasm. Beside her, the Magister listened to his student speak with a look of dreamy satisfaction, like one listening to the crescendo of an overture. Though he knew it to be the influence of an Enchantment he had invoked to draw out his students' raw, untainted emotions, the Credo proved as inspiring as the day he and his companions had penned it.
"Thank you, Alesia." Kilroy turned to their guest. "That is the creed of the Tower, Gwen, what is your opinion of our Path?”
Gwen shook with unexplainable emotions. A rapturous ardour burst within her like the swelling sea at high tide. Effortlessly, she found her next words.
“Greatness,” she declared in the next moment, finding herself channelling the wisdom of Emerson, “Greatness is the binding of superior advantage to larger generosity, that which we call Noblesse Oblige!"
“Exactly!” The Magister’s eyes widened with unexpected pleasure. What insight! What wisdom!
"The abuse of power," Gwen's voice raised in pitch and volume, invoking the Bard. "Is when remorse is disjointed from Greatness!"
“Gwen, that's... that's perfect!” The Magister found himself applauding the girl. Such clarity! Such brilliance! He had studied the Credo for half a century and yet, he had not uncovered words that encapsulated his ethos so well.
Opposite the Magister, Gwen was scarlet with shame over her plagiarism. She looked over at Alesia and Henry, now regarding her with open fascination, as though she was the Magister and they were the Acolyte.
Alesia's fists clenched, beside her, the veins on Magister Kilroy's wrinkled neck pulsed with undulating intensity.
As the fever of Gwen's mind cooled, she couldn't help but wonder if she had made the right impression.