While Gwen awaited her verdict, the Magister and his Apprentice were having a silent exchange of their own.
“Master, you had better dismiss Heighten Emotion, we're all getting too worked up. Your heart...”
“I am fine… I am fine… Where did you find this girl? One of the Great Houses?”
“At Blackwattle… near the Fish Market.”
“From a government school? Then how is she saying all of this? Did you teach her the Credo?”
“Never mentioned it.”
“Yet, she understands the Tower's charter better than its most senior member. She’s just given us the answers our scholars had struggled with for aeons!"
“Well, she IS an anomaly…”
From Gwen's perspective, Magister Kilroy silently sipped his Golden Mead for a minute before he could work up enough energy to continue. Sufina coddled the old man while still in Gwen's likeness; a sight which made Gwen incredibly uncomfortable.
“So - an assurance,” Henry said finally, after soothing out his breath and making sure he had indeed dispelled the enchantment. “You will submit yourself to a Greater Geas.”
Gwen's expression was uncomprehending.
Alesia moved to explain.
“It’s a more powerful, permanent form of the Quest spell…”
Gwen's comprehension was one of vacancy.
“It’s a compulsion spell that punishes you and alerts Master if you break a promise to a condition we set,” Alesia explained in laymen's terms. “In this case, you are going to promise that you will not use your ability to commune with the Mythic to do anything hostile toward the city, towards other humans, except for extreme self-preservation. You also promise to tell no one about our Geas, the serpent, or our decision to shield you from the Tower.”
She didn't have to like it to agree, for she understood that this was the best Alesia could offer under the circumstances. Alesia had already put herself in danger, and now her Master was also invested. There was little else to be said other than to accept the Geas with good grace.
“I understand," Gwen affirmed. “Let's do it.”
“Woa, hold your horses, Tiger, you get to negotiate as well. We’re not bandits.”
“I am fine," she replied. "I should be thankful that you are risking your skins for my sake.”
Alesia glanced at her Master, who gave her a look that seemed to suggest she should learn from Gwen's maturity.
The Scarlet Sorceress pouted sulkily.
“Well then.” Magister Kilroy cleared his throat, “If you have no specific request, then please listen to mine.”
“Anything, Sir." Gwen felt genuine admiration for the sagely Magister. At the same time, she was also a little jealous of the father-daughter kinship the old Mage enacted with Alesia. Gwen herself had never experienced such paternal guidance: which, in Gwen's opinion, likely accounted for the dubious decisions she had made in her adolescence.
“Ahem, yes, well, if you insist.” Henry appeared troubled by Gwen's earnestness. “I want to take you on as my Apprentice if you are willing. One, as compensation for accepting the Geas spell, and two, because I think you agree with our philosophy so very well. I have never met anyone who surmised our Credo so completely.”
To a Magister?!
Apprentice to Alesia's Master? A Mage whose domain encompassed the city of Sydney? Gwen immediately looked towards Alesia for affirmation; her Instructor also wore an expression of disbelief.
Gwen's heart sank.
“Alesia… would that be okay?” She knew she owed Alesia more than she could repay. It was entirely possible her saviour had no desire to share her privilege. If so, she'll respect Alesia's wishes.
“What are you talking about Gwen! That would be wonderful!” Alesia leapt from her chair and embraced Gwen, planting a big kiss on her cheek. “We are sisters now! I am your sister-in-craft now! Gwennie!”
“Big Sis!” Gwen called out, feeling doubly awkward because she was technically older than Alesia.
“Little Sis!” Alesia tasted the word rolling off her tongue and loved it.
Henry patiently waited as his students, new and old, performed a happy little dance.
“A new member of the family? Huzzah!” The room resounded with the sound of shivering autumn leaves. Sufina joined the duo. As a Dyrad; she was highly sensitive to joyous emotions, which served as a form of nourishment.
"Sir!" Gwen struggled free, then fell to one knee. It seemed the correct thing to do. "I accept your blessing!"
Gwen made the supplicating gesture of placing her right hand upon her left breast. Following Alesia's instruction, she then swore that she would serve Kilroy and his Credo to the best of her ability.
When Gwen rose from the floor, the Grot once again filled with celebratory air, thick with the scent of jasmine in bloom.
Watching the women swig down mugs of Golden Mead, Magister Henry Kilroy, Master of the Sydney Tower, came upon a hair-raising epiphany.
Was his grotto to be filled with women, young, unruly and supernatural? What would happen if they ganged up or henpecked him? Would he ever know peace again?
“Sufina, the scroll.”
After carefully explaining each article and clause to their newest member, the Great Geas was ready to be expended.
Gwen pricked her thumb on a mithril dagger, then placed a bloody print into the scroll. In the next moment, a silver fire consumed the parchment.
A tingly sensation suffused her skin. Distinctly, she sensed through her mind's eye that there was now a cluster of golden Enchantment orbiting her Astral Body like a satellite.
“There'll be a throbbing pain if you're about to renege on the agreement,” Henry informed her. “And as agreed, I would be notified immediately.”
“Thank you, Sir,” Gwen replied before hurriedly correcting herself. “Master.”
After Gwen delivered her sickly sweet 'Master,' Alesia relaxed, finally landing on the solid ground after two days of Flight. Now that her Master had ensured Gwen's preservation, it was time to find some answers to questions that had been gnawing at her since Gwen revealed her talents.
“Master, if you still have the time, I highly recommend taking Gwen to the Cognisance Observatory.”
“Oh? Gwen's that impressive, is she?”
Gwen felt a blush coming on, Alesia was overextending her praise. Surely she would disappoint her new Master. After all, Alesia was at least tier 6 Evocation, with an insane aptitude for Fire. Gwen was a measly tier 2. It was like comparing a Pomeranian to a Displacer Beast.
“Gwen, do you mind?” Alesia nudged her sister-in-craft. She told Gwen that it was a rare enterprise to have a Magister overlook one's skills. Usually, Mages paid hundreds in HDMs just for a fraction of Henry’s time, begging for mystical solutions to arcane enquiries.
"I would love to!” Gwen raised her hand in affirmation.
Finally, the extent of her new prospects weighed in on her. My Master is a Magister! Did that mean she was now in unassailable position?
Or at least, that was what Gwen had thought until Alesia informed her of the dangers of being Henry Kilroy's Apprentice.
"Don't celebrate yet, Gwen. Apprenticeships aren't public information," Alesia explained. The reasons for discretion were many, though principally it was for the Apprentice's protection until they could stand on their own. Kidnapping, bribery and harassment of a Magister's prized Apprentices were a few of many ways to influence a Magister's decisions, especially one like Henry Kilroy.
As such, though her Master would be available to guide Gwen down her Path of Spellcraft, he would not make their relationship public and official until they could fend for themselves.
Even Alesia, a known associate of the Magister for two decades, was only seen by the outside world as a protégé, an Acolyte mentee who ran errands for the Magister in exchange for knowledge and favours.
“You also have a brother-in-craft as well,” Alesia’s eyes were half-closed when she spoke, a little excitement creeping into her voice. “His name is Gunther Schultz. We're in the same boat, though everyone correctly assumes Gunther is Master's official Apprentice."
Gunther Shultz. It wasn't the first time Gwen had heard the name.
"Not knowing our true relationship offers us significant flexibility," Henry grinned. "But enough of that. Let us proceed to the Great Cognisance Chamber. I am curious as to your sister-in-craft's enthusiasm."
Kilroy guided the duo to the exit of the pocket dimension, explaining to Gwen that that 'Grot' was the domain of his dear companion, Sufina. In the event of an intrusion, the Dryad could keep hostile Mages trapped indefinitely, wandering the endless hallways of her pocket dimension.
Beyond the oaken doors, a Levitation platform rose to meet them.
“Where’s Sufina?” Gwen noticed the giantess had suddenly disappeared.
Henry tapped his skull.
“Sufina dislikes the distorted space of the Tower,” he replied. “She’s a creature of nature.”
The platform arrived with the addition of two guards in white.
“My Lord!” The men snapped to attention.
“Cadets,” Henry greeted the Tower's Guards-cum-Valets. “No.1 Observatory, please.”
Once outside the Grot, Alesia resumed her resting bitch face. Gwen's attention wandered here and there, split between the architectural spectacle, her amiable new Master, and Alesia's hostile demeanour.
The lift drifted through the Tower's interior, where behind thick, mana reinforced glass Gwen could see Mages at work. So this is a Tower, Gwen hungrily took in the wondrous sight, a construct of magic housing the best and brightest Mages.
A few strata consisted of offices, appearing no different to a commercial centre. Others were to be chaotic rooms used for training, shielded to prevent damage to the walls. Up higher, four consecutive floors looked like ancient libraries with row upon rows of grimoires that made Gwen’s fingers itch. Higher still, glass panes revealed what looked like laboratories filled with white-robed Mages. When Gwen spotted the moving form of a half-crustacean humanoid raging against a clear mana barrier, she yelped in surprise.
"Don't mind it, Gwen," Henry informed her. "A specimen, nothing more."
Finally, they arrived at the beginning of yet another corridor, where the platform docked itself with a sound of metal kissing metal.
“Observatory No1, my Lord.” The guards snapped to either side of the platform, allowing them to pass. As Gwen passed one of the guards, she caught a look in his eyes which sent goosebumps prickling across her skin.
The man's narrowing, unrelenting gaze transmute a feeling she knew well. It was jealousy over the fact that she, a young woman of no recognisable value or importance, was going to be spending time in a Cognisance Chamber with the Lord Magister! Demurely, she averted her gaze, her cheeks hot with mortification.
“Leave us,” the Magister intoned coldly. The platform descended after another autocratic hail of “Yessir!”
“What a racket.” Henry turned away.
“Comes with the territory,” Alesia snorted. “At least you didn't have to sign autographs.”
“I thought you enjoyed your glory days.” Henry chuckled. “You were so young, so pure, not cynical and twisted like you are now; flying around in that battledress, the dreams and hopes of young men everywhere in the military. Where did it all go wrong?”
“You made me what I am,” Alesia shot back, grinning at her Master. "No backsies."
“Gwen…” Kilroy lamented helplessly.
“Don’t turn out like Alesia; the additional stress would kill me."
The Tower's Cognisance Chamber was far more extensive than the one Gwen had been in at school.
It was more like a gymnasium, with a ceiling of six or seven meters and just as wide and long, forming a sterile white space.
Henry waved a hand. The room sunk immediately into darkness.
Space fell away. In the next moment, the trio stood upon the Astral Plane. One by one, orbs of varying colours began to manifest.
“Gwen,” Henry beckoned his youngest Apprentice to come closer. Above her, about her and below, arcane phenomena bathed her in technicolour. “How well do you know the Elemental Planes?”
“Only what the textbook indicated, Master.”
Henry nodded, moving his hands. Around her, Gwen saw the expansion of a galaxy more detailed and more extraordinary than anything she could imagine.
He pointed to the zenith. “Positive.”
He pointed to the nadir. “Negative”
He pointed to the four compass-corners. “Earth, Fire, Water, Air”
He pointed to an area alive with crawling motes of electrical energy.
“Where Air and Positive meet, there is Lightning.”
He pointed to a place that was tenebrous and threatening.
“The man who tried to assault you was Dust, the meeting of Negative Energy and Earth.”
The clarifying vision brought new epiphanies into Gwen's theory-addled mind. So many questions that had plagued her ramshackle understanding clarified at once.
The Magister continued.
“Lightning, Steam, Mineral, Radiance.” Henry pointed toward the space between the Prime Elements and the Positive Element.
“Smoke, Magma, Ooze, Ice,” Henry continued, pointing to the linear intersections where the Primary Elements met. “Often mistaken for quasi-elemental. These are Para-Elemental Planes, free from Positive or Negative influence.”
Finally, he pointed below at the absolute darkness that is the Negative Plane and its corners.
“Ash, Dust, Salt…” The Magister paused. “...and Void.”
The vision faded.
“Gwen, please manifest,” he commanded.
Gwen opened her mind’s eye. A parallel vision coalesced on the floor below, reflecting her astral form: a lithe, transparent body filled with clear motes of lightning and uncertain motes of something else.
“Beautiful.” Alesia touched a hand to her mouth. “What a wonderful Astral Form, Gwen, such clarity!”
“Alesia, if you would join us.”
Alesia followed suit; it was an ultimate act of trust, for exposing one’s Astral Body was akin to bearing one's soul, leaving nothing to hide.
Flame began to manifest from underneath Alesia, expanding as a swarm of fireflies taking flight until slowly, the silhouette of a feminine figure took form. Unlike Gwen’s crystalline visage, the edges of Alesia's Astral Form was a heat haze. Her Astral Projection then grew in intensity until it became a roaring forest fire, first red, then yellow, then blue, then ultimately, white. When she finished, the Chamber was aglow with iridescence, illuminated by a woman-shaped fission reactor.
“Tone it down a little, Alesia.” Henry shielded his eyes with a localised Abjuration.
Alesia diminished her output until her Astral Body assumed the comfortable glow of a hearth fire.
“I understand you want to show off, but Gwen’s going to need new eyes." Gwen's Master murmured.
Alesia staggard back when Gwen reappeared with two swollen orbs, watery with tears.
“So…so wonderful…” Gwen attempted to give her sister-in-craft a thumbs-up, pointed at an entirely different direction.
“I am so sorry Gwen…” Alesia fumbled for an injector then gave her blinded sister-in-craft a shot in the arm, restoring her seared pupils.
“So rash…” Henry shook his head, that temperament of hers was the reason he withheld a public Apprentice from Alesia.
With her vision restored, Gwen breathed a little easier.
“Right, let's continue.” Henry reminded them. “Gwen, use your favourite spell."
Gwen closed her eyes, focused her mind, then began her chant.
She channelled her favourite Evocation magic, observing the interchange of mystical energies within her body.
A stink of ozone followed the flash of Lightning.
“Now try your other element,” Henry commanded. "The Void Element."
"The Void... Element, Sir?"
"Go on, see how well it answers your call."
Gwen attempted to channel the black motes of energy within her body into the Evocation Sigil, but the Elemental Gate remained dormant. She tried again, but the tenebrous specks appeared oblivious to her will.
“… I am sorry Master." Gwen's face was scarlet. "I can't."
“That’s fine… What was it like when you used the Void Element last time?”
Clearing her mind, she recounted a few hypotheticals. The first time, she deduced, was likely after her terrible ordeal at her mother’s luncheon, where she had a meltdown in the middle of Hyde Park. The next time would be when Edgar attempted to consume her ego.
“… and both time you had…” Alesia asked uncomfortably. “Thoughts of self-harm?”
Gwen lowered her head. She knew it was a weakness, one brought by fear and despair, uncertainty and self-loathing.
“No need to feel ashamed,” Henry's assurance was calm and soothing. “I am familiar with the Void Element myself. Void, you see, is triggered by intensely negative emotions - not unusual seeing that the Negative Plane corresponds strongly to death and destruction, just as the Positive Plane enables life and restoration.”
Kilroy considered the visage of Gwen's Astral Body a moment more before appearing to make a decision.
"I am sorry," Gwen wondered if she had displeased her new Master already if he was regretting taking her on.
“Your Astral Body is unique,” He began. “Twin elements, oppositional in polarity, a true oddity. One that is perhaps, rarer than my own. Observe-"
Without effort, Henry expanded his Astral presence, filling the reflection below with a pyrotechnic of colour. From Gwen's perspective, Henry Kilroy's mana signature was an astral wonder.
First, there was Fire.
Then came Water.
A rusty ochre indicated Earth.
The fourth, barely visible, could only be Air.
“Do you see?”
Gwen nodded. She saw though she did not comprehend. The manifestation was impossible; it made no sense. For Henry to possess four Primary Elements meant that her textbooks were full of lies.
The Magister then opened his palm, and Gwen saw a miniature Sufina, chubby and cute, move within the space of his palm.
“Fire, Water, Earth, Air - Evocation, Conjuration, Transmutation,” the Magister said solemnly. “Together, they make the Prime Material, invisible to us because we miss the forest for the trees. My unique Element, Gwen, is the element of Life.”
Gwen nodded, too awed to speak.
“Don't fret over your inexperience. We were all young, once. When I was a child, they called me a fool, a useless nincompoop. When I was a young man, they called me a prodigy. When I was an adult, they called me a Magus. When I grew older, they called me Magister. Do you wish to know the lesson I learned, Gwen?"
"I sought out guidance, Gwen. With humility and without shame. Far and wide I travelled and tested myself, visiting all the Maguses and Magisters who were willing to teach me, telling them about my talents.”
The Magister gave Gwen a look that was full of knowing, hinting at something that made Gwen’s stomach lurch.
“We all have our secrets. People fear those who are different, what cannot be attained by themselves especially, but that's just human nature. They would call you strange, reject you, accuse you, or mayhap they would do the opposite, uphold you, put you on a pedestal. Your Void Element: it is rare, and it is incredibly dangerous. But do not fear that which is a part of you. Control it, don’t let it control and feed on you. Don't hide it from the world and let it fester.”
“Thank you, Master…” The old man’s wise words filled Gwen with warmth, but then the old Master's next words poured over her like a bucket of arcane ice.
“But back to the topic of guidance, Gwen Song.” Kilroy's voice rose an octave, as though a man who suddenly found himself in possession of the world’s largest rough diamond. “If you don't mind, my Apprentice, can you explain to me why you have yet to Awaken?”